Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.
Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.
A love letter to the power of books and friendship.
The thorny matriarch of Crosby, Maine, makes a welcome return.
As in Strout’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge (2008, etc.), the formidable title character is always a presence but not always onstage in these 13 interconnected tales of loneliness, loss, and love in its many flawed incarnations. Olive has not become any easier to like since her husband, Henry, died two years ago; “stupid” is a favorite adjective, and “phooey to you” a frequent term of dismissal. But over the course of about a decade we see Olive struggling, in her flinty way, to become “oh, just a tiny—tiny—bit better as a person.” Her second marriage, to Jack Kennison, helps. “I like you, Olive,” he says. “I’m not sure why, really. But I do.” Readers will feel the same, as she brusquely comforts a former student with cancer in “Light” and commiserates with the grieving daughter-in-law she has never much liked in “Motherless Child.” Yet that story ends with Olive’s desolate conclusion that she is largely responsible for her fraught relationship with her son: “She herself had [raised] a motherless child.” Parents are estranged from children, husbands from wives, siblings from each other in this keening portrait of a world in which each of us is fundamentally alone and never truly knows even those we love the most. This is not the whole story, Strout demonstrates with her customary empathy and richness of detail. “You must have been a very good mother,” Olive’s doctor says after observing Christopher in devoted attendance at the hospital after she has a heart attack, and the daughter of an alcoholic mother and dismissive, abusive father finds a nurturing substitute in her parents’ lawyer in “Helped.” The beauty of the natural world provides a sustaining counterpoint to charged human interactions in which “there were so many things that could not be said.” There’s no simple truth about human existence, Strout reminds us, only wonderful, painful complexity. “Well, that’s life," Olive says. "Nothing you can do about it.”
Beautifully written and alive with compassion, at times almost unbearably poignant. A thrilling book in every way.
In which the author scrupulously investigates his upper-middle-class upbringing to confront its messy interior of violence, betrayal, and mental illness.
Adam, the center and occasional narrator of Lerner’s (The Hatred of Poetry, 2016, etc.) essayistic and engrossing novel, enjoyed a privileged adolescence in the Kansas capital during the 1990s: He competed nationally in debate, had plenty of friends, and was close to his parents, two psychologists at an illustrious foundation. (Lerner is again in autofiction mode; he, too, competed in high school debate, and his parents are psychologists who’ve worked at Topeka’s Menninger Clinic.) But all is not well: Fred Phelps’ homophobic Westboro Baptist Church recurs in the narrative, a childhood concussion has left Adam with migraines, and his parents’ marriage is strained. Lerner alternates sections written from the perspectives of Adam, his mother, and his father with interludes about Darren, a mentally troubled teen who committed an act of violence at a party that Adam feels complicit in. How much? Hard to say, but the book sensitively gathers up the evidence of abuse, violation, and cruelty in Adam’s life. Though the conflicts are often modest, like Adam's mom’s fending off Phelps-ian trolls angry at her bestselling book, Lerner convincingly argues they're worth intense scrutiny. As a debate competitor, Adam had to confront a "spread"—an opponent's laying out a fearsome number of arguments, each requiring rebuttals—and Lerner is doing much the same with his adolescence. How do childhood microaggressions build into a singular violent act? Were the rhetorical debates between the Phelpses and the foundation a rehearsal for contemporary Trumpian politics? Few writers are so deeply engaged as Lerner in how our interior selves are shaped by memory and consequence, and if he finds no clear conclusion to his explorations, it makes the “Darren Eberheart situation” increasingly powerful and heartbreaking as the story moves on.
Autofiction at its smartest and most effective: self-interested, self-interrogating, but never self-involved.
Yale’s secret societies hide a supernatural secret in this fantasy/murder mystery/school story.
Most Yale students get admitted through some combination of impressive academics, athletics, extracurriculars, family connections, and donations, or perhaps bribing the right coach. Not Galaxy “Alex” Stern. The protagonist of Bardugo’s (King of Scars, 2019, etc.) first novel for adults, a high school dropout and low-level drug dealer, Alex got in because she can see dead people. A Yale dean who's a member of Lethe, one of the college’s famously mysterious secret societies, offers Alex a free ride if she will use her spook-spotting abilities to help Lethe with its mission: overseeing the other secret societies’ occult rituals. In Bardugo’s universe, the “Ancient Eight” secret societies (Lethe is the eponymous Ninth House) are not just old boys’ breeding grounds for the CIA, CEOs, Supreme Court justices, and so on, as they are in ours; they’re wielders of actual magic. Skull and Bones performs prognostications by borrowing patients from the local hospital, cutting them open, and examining their entrails. St. Elmo’s specializes in weather magic, useful for commodities traders; Aurelian, in unbreakable contracts; Manuscript goes in for glamours, or “illusions and lies,” helpful to politicians and movie stars alike. And all these rituals attract ghosts. It’s Alex’s job to keep the supernatural forces from embarrassing the magical elite by releasing chaos into the community (all while trying desperately to keep her grades up). “Dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home.” A townie’s murder sets in motion a taut plot full of drug deals, drunken assaults, corruption, and cover-ups. Loyalties stretch and snap. Under it all runs the deep, dark river of ambition and anxiety that at once powers and undermines the Yale experience. Alex may have more reason than most to feel like an imposter, but anyone who’s spent time around the golden children of the Ivy League will likely recognize her self-doubt.
With an aura of both enchantment and authenticity, Bardugo’s compulsively readable novel leaves a portal ajar for equally dazzling sequels.
“This is the age of the whistleblower,” writes Mueller (Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, 2011). Beginning in the late 1960s, informants like Ralph Nader and Daniel Ellsberg “galvanized” America over wrongdoing, “from cybercrime to credit card scams to identity theft, from criminal college admissions conspiracies to systemic wrongdoing by automobile companies to wholesale money laundering and looting of national treasuries by banks.” Drawing on interviews with more than 200 whistleblowers and many lawyers and experts, the author offers revealing human stories about numerous insiders and outsiders, both well- and little-known, who have engaged in this “vital crime-fighting paradigm” under federal laws that provide job protection and financial incentives (a percentage of money recovered by the government). “Since 1986,” writes Mueller, “the False Claims Act has been used to recover some sixty billion stolen tax dollars, and has deterred an estimated $1 trillion more in fraud.” Whether writing about drug companies that conceal unfavorable evidence, hospitals that engage in needless admissions, or nuclear facilities that waste public funds, the author engrossingly examines the ethics, mechanics, and reverberations of whistleblowing of all kinds, emphasizing how bitterly controversial the practice remains, posing a clash between group loyalty and individual conscience. “Even if we admire…the whistleblowers’ devotion to justice, we may still mistrust them for their betrayal of coworkers, superiors, and the organization itself,” he writes. Animus against whistleblowers—who generally undergo scrutiny and retribution and face considerable challenges finding new jobs—stems from “the instinctive aversion” that employees who choose to work for large, hierarchical organizations have for “people who question authority.” Mueller also looks at conflicts of interest, societal changes, and the neuroscience of blowing the whistle. He harshly criticizes “national security mandarins” who abuse public trust for private gain. Begun before the rise of Donald Trump, the book deems the president the “incarnation” of the present era of corruption.
Superb reporting on brave people who decided, “It would have been criminal for me not to act.”
A memoir about a charismatic mother who embroiled her daughter in a dramatic affair.
In a candid, deftly crafted narrative, Brodeur (Man Camp, 2005), co-founder of the magazine Zoetrope: All Story, reveals the family secrets that burdened her life from the age of 14, when she became her mother’s confidante and accomplice in a love affair. Her mother was an attractive, charming woman, “a breath of fresh air, an irresistible combination of clever and irreverent,” and the author worshipped her. Although the lover was a close and long-standing family friend and the affair betrayed her kind and beloved stepfather’s trust, Brodeur willingly helped her mother cover her tracks and distract others from noticing the couple’s disappearances, covert touching, and secret glances. For years, she felt thrilled by her role and deeply sympathetic to her mother’s needs for love and sex. After her stepfather had suffered several strokes, her mother felt more like a caretaker than a wife. She confided in her daughter that she needed more—and she needed her daughter’s support. Brodeur was flattered by her mother’s dependence on her, and when she traveled during a gap year, she called home weekly, feeling guilty “for not being more supportive” by phoning more often. Not until she shared her story with a new boyfriend—and later with a woman friend and her future husband (who, bizarrely, was her mother’s lover’s son)—did the author realize that someone outside of the family would see the arrangement far differently. “I felt confused,” she writes, “suddenly thrust into a state of disequilibrium” by listeners who saw her mother “as perpetrator, not victim.” Admitting that her mother’s behavior was abusive made her feel “an unbearable sense of disloyalty.” Her need to separate herself from her mother grew, however; in college, she tried to create a new identity, different from someone “so consumed by her mother that she hardly knew where her mother ended and she began.” That project defined her life for years to come.
A vivid chronicle of a daughter’s struggle to find herself.
One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.
Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.
Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.
A richly detailed, affectionate portrait of the legendary singer.
George-Warren (A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man, 2014, etc.) builds this illuminating biography of Janis Joplin (1943-1970) from interviews with surviving members of her family, band mates, and friends from all eras of her short life. Raised in Port Arthur, Texas, where her father was a refinery engineer, Joplin was a rebel who showed a talent for art. She was an outcast in high school, especially after she began patronizing the segregated venues where she could hear black artists perform live. She had also discovered the Beats, which gave her a picture of a lifestyle she began to emulate. In college, she began to sing with traditional folk groups, showing off a voice inspired by blues legend Bessie Smith. After dropping out, she made her way to San Francisco, where she joined Big Brother and the Holding Company. The most talented of the group, she attracted a devoted following and began to indulge in the excesses of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. The author follows her tours with the band as well as her offstage life, which was full of sex and drugs. Touchingly, she still hoped for acceptance by her conservative family, as indicated in her letters home. After two albums, she had outgrown Big Brother and signed a record contract as a single artist with a new backup band. She was as big a star as any in the business, although her erratic lifestyle occasionally caused her to cancel dates. As her last album, Pearl, demonstrated, she continued to grow as an artist, but her death from a heroin overdose at age 27 cut her promising career short. George-Warren gives her subject a sensitive yet honest treatment, showing all dimensions of Joplin’s life without minimizing her self-destructive side. Filled with evocations of the San Francisco music scene at its height, the narrative will give readers new appreciation for Joplin.
A top-notch biography of one of the greatest performers to emerge from a brilliant era.
The shooting of an unarmed African American teen by police serves as catalyst for racial tension in a community still recovering from a previous tragedy.
This time, Shae Tatum, a 13-year-old girl, is shot by a white police officer. Two years have passed since the killing of Tariq Johnson, and the community organizations that arose in the aftermath are more active. Social media scrutiny has intensified, with the media and police focusing on public messaging. The officer’s family copes with being in the spotlight, and a minister who was in the limelight is now a senator. Tariq’s friend Tyrell is now focused on college and reluctant to dredge up bad memories, but his white roommate, Robb, is intrigued by the shooting and seems insensitive to Tyrell’s silence. The engagement of white supremacists and white women who protest in support of the police at Shae’s funeral add new wrinkles. As tensions escalate, divisions harden while the police and community await the decision of the grand jury. This follow-up to the author’s acclaimed How It Went Down (2014) uses multiple distinctive narrators, transcripts, and social media posts to convey the charged atmosphere as people must carry on with their lives while turmoil brews around them. The wide range of personalities, rich details, and nuanced connections make this a stellar and important read.
This companion to a modern classic offers an even deeper, more layered depiction of the impact of a police shooting.
Princess Esmae started a war—but will she finish it?
Esmae always dreamed of reuniting with the family who abandoned her when she was a child. She originally wanted to return her brothers to their homeland after they were usurped by their Uncle Elvar. But when her twin, Alexi, tries to kill her—and instead kills her best friend—her trust is shaken. Esmae reluctantly plots to maintain the status quo in hopes that Elvar will allow her to inherit the throne. But when she learns the truth about the duel that was meant to end her life, her sense of self is completely shattered. Driven by ambition, jealousy, and a lifetime of powerlessness, Esmae grows increasingly bloodthirsty and power hungry, abandoning her former quest for peace and her family’s love. The plot is fast-paced and full of surprises, its intricate world carefully rendered. Where it really shines, however, is in its characters, particularly Esmae, who, throughout the story, is forced to confront painful truths. Mandanna (A Spark of White Fire, 2018) is an astute observer of human nature and a master of suspense, deftly unraveling Esmae’s defenses until her complex feelings about her family turn her from peacenik to warmonger while simultaneously making her villain of a brother more sympathetic. After substantial intermarrying, race does not exist in this fantasy world.
Extraordinarily drawn characters and plot twists will keep readers’ hearts racing.
The pitiless dictatorship of Francisco Franco examined through the voices of four teenagers: one American and three Spaniards.
The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936-1939, but Franco held Spain by its throat for 36 years. Sepetys (Salt to the Sea, 2016, etc.) begins her novel in 1957. Daniel is a white Texan who wants to be a photojournalist, not an oilman; Ana is trying to work her way to respectability as a hotel maid; her brother, Rafael, wants to erase memories of an oppressive boys’ home; and Puri is a loving caregiver for babies awaiting adoption—together they provide alternating third-person lenses for viewing Spain during one of its most brutally repressive periods. Their lives run parallel and intersect as each tries to answer questions about truth and the path ahead within a regime that crushes any opposition, murders dissidents, and punishes their families while stealing babies to sell to parents with accepted political views. This formidable story will haunt those who ask hard questions about the past as it reveals the hopes and dreams of individuals in a nation trying to lie its way to the future. Meticulous research is presented through believable, complex characters on the brink of adulthood who personalize the questions we all must answer about our place in the world.
A stunning novel that exposes modern fascism and elevates human resilience. (author’s note, research and sources, glossary, photographs) (Historical fiction. 15-adult)
Sixteen-year-old Violet is shuffled off to stay with her uncle in coastal Maine after her brother, Sam, tries to kill himself.
The near mythic family lore of Violet’s mother, whose great-great-great-grandparents founded the fictional town of Lyric, is the thread that weaves together a host of interesting characters in this witty, surprising novel as it explores grief, mental illness, and both family and romantic dynamics. After a wild year of drinking and impersonal sex that ultimately results in Violet’s suspension from school for smoking weed near campus, she arrives in Lyric with a freshly shaven head and a vow to keep to herself. Though she cares about her kind uncle, Toby, Violet’s avoidance of her painful and difficult emotions means that she holds him at arm’s length and speaks little to her parents back in New York City or her brother, who is at a treatment center in Vermont. Slowly, through the relationships she develops with her similarly musically talented co-worker Orion and his tightknit, eccentric group, Liv, Mariah, and Felix, Violet begins to contend with her own anxiety and her near paralyzing fear about her brother’s illness. Most of the characters are white; Mariah is Indian American, and several are queer.
A warm, wise, strange meditation on developing the strength to be vulnerable.
Wheeler shares a poignant tale, based on her grandmother’s childhood, of a Depression-era family’s hard times.
Marvel, 6, has seven siblings. Their newly widowed mother guides them, as they carry their worldly goods along, into the woods, where they find an abandoned shack. Though decrepit, it’s got a root cellar, a functioning water pump, a wood stove, and a garden spot rich with leaf mold. As summer yields to autumn, Mum does chores for pay in town. The children draw lots for the home tasks: laundry (hand-scrubbed and hung to dry), wood-splitting, and more. A bountiful harvest engenders prodigious canning as the family prepares for the bitter weather ahead. While the children must buy only basic supplies at the general store, their doleful window shopping produces an inventive outdoor game, in which “We can buy anything we want!” Winter brings snow and cold, quilting, reading by the wood stove, and a wild-turkey stew. Wheeler’s lovely ink-and-watercolor double-page spreads, in somber grays, sunlight yellow, and meadow green, evoke both the period and the family’s stark poverty. The thin faces are gray-white, with dark hair and pale pink cheeks. Delicate visual details abound, from the sparkle of evening raindrops to Mum’s side-buttoned apron. Marvel’s ruminative narration takes occasional poetic turns: “Mum stays awake / into the night… / …whispering / to / the / stars.”
A quietly compelling look at an impoverished family’s resourcefulness and resilience.
(Picture book. 5-9)
This inspiring and soothing book is the fruition of an exhibit of the same title, featuring postcards sent by more than 50 children’s-book illustrators from around the world to express solidarity with today’s migrants.
Each postcard is a work of art; many are submitted by award-winning illustrators. Most feature birds in flight coupled with excerpts of poetry or words of encouragement: A flying ostrich does the impossible; a swallow flies across a field of gray and reveals spring behind her; six humorous bird busts accompany a message to “Fly high!”; an albatross “holds in its eye the storm / And … / The small green island of its home”—a message says that where we go becomes part of us. The brief, poetic messages and illustrations beam with encouragement. They collectively highlight the universality of the traveling experience, acknowledge loss, and find and seed hope in a better time to come. The book is organized around themes of “departures,” “long journeys,” “arrivals,” and “hope for the future.” A preface by Shaun Tan highlights the power and responsibility of spreading hope through works that talk to the imagination. This small but powerful book definitely succeeds in this aim and will appeal to readers from migrant and host communities alike, young and old.
A timely and heartening work.
(Picture book. 8-12)
Chicago seventh grader Tristan Strong travels to Alke, where African American folk characters are gods.
Tristan has just lost his first boxing match. It’s unsurprising, given he’s mourning the death of his best friend, Eddie, and struggling with accompanying survivor guilt, but unacceptable for someone from a boxing family. On the ride to summer exile with his grandparents in the Alabama countryside, Tristan begins reading Eddie’s story journal. Somehow, the journal allows Tristan to see folk heroes John Henry and Brer Rabbit sending an unseen someone off on a mission. That night, Gum Baby (a hoot and a half—easily the funniest character in the book), from the Anansi story, steals Eddie’s journal. Needless to say, things go awry: A hole is ripped in the sky of Alke, and Tristan (but not only Tristan) falls in. The people of Alke are suffering, but grieving, reluctant hero Tristan’s unwilling to jump right in to help those in need, even when it becomes clear that he’s partly responsible, making him both imperfect and realistic. Mbalia’s African American and West African gods (with villains tied to U.S. chattel slavery and the Middle Passage specifically) touch on the tensions between the cultures, a cultural nuance oft overlooked. Readers who want more than just a taste of Alke will be eager for future books. Most human characters, like Tristan, are black with brown skin.
A worthy addition to the diverse array of offerings from Rick Riordan Presents.
Caldecott Honoree Mora (Thank You, Omu!, 2018) returns in this sophomore offering about a mother and daughter’s special Saturday.
Young protagonist Ava and her mother love their Saturdays together. Ava’s mother works, “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday,” so Saturday is their special day. The pairs’ smiles and Ava’s outflung hands convey excitement, while realistic details such as Ava’s mother’s sleep scarf add authenticity. In vignettes, Mora’s collage art chronicles some of their past adventures and shows them performing various actions in a circle of repeated figures (clearly intended to convey the passage of time), preparing for their day. Discerning readers may spy something left behind as they head out. Things start to go awry almost immediately, but Ava’s mother is full of reassurances, and they have a strategy for dealing with disappointment: pause, close their eyes, breathe deep, and move on. But after the biggest disappointment comes at the end of a daylong string of them, it’s Ava who brings comfort to her mother in a touching moment that may bring tears to readers’ eyes. Though not a preachy book, it offers lessons that are both beautiful and useful. Ava and her mother are black, with skin of different hues of browns, while other characters are an array of skin tones. How wonderful: a book with both racial diversity and class diversity that feels authentic.