Best New Books: Week of 10/20/2020

“My alma mater was books, a good library… I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.” – Malcolm X


Plain Bad Heroines by  Emily M. Danforth ★

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.

Description from Goodreads.

“Full of Victorian sapphic romance, metafictional horror, biting misandrist humor, Hollywood intrigue, and multiple timeliness—all replete with evocative illustrations that are icing on a deviously delicious cake.” – OThe Oprah Magazine

“A delicious horror comedy with enough stories within stories to make even Inception seem straightforward… Add in some stunning illustrations, and this book becomes the year’s must-read horror novel.” – Popsugar

“A delicious Gothic tale… a tasty brew of creepy shuttered prep school, creepy reopened prep school, queer feminist legacy and modern adaptation of said legacy… will make you crave more of Danforth’s smart, funny prose.” – Washington Post

A short list of things you’ll find in this novel: curses, lesbians, gilded-age society scandals, yellow jackets, a heaping dose of snark, and the nagging sense that the line between what’s real and what isn’t has been blurred… It’s the perfect autumn read for you and your best friend that you’re secretly in love with, trust me.” – Buzzfeed

Available Formats:

Print Book | eBook

Where the Wild Ladies Are by  Aoko Matsuda ★

In this witty and exuberant collection of feminist retellings of traditional Japanese folktales, humans live side by side with spirits who provide a variety of useful services—from truth-telling to babysitting, from protecting castles to fighting crime.

A busybody aunt who disapproves of hair removal; a pair of door-to-door saleswomen hawking portable lanterns; a cheerful lover who visits every night to take a luxurious bath; a silent house-caller who babysits and cleans while a single mother is out working. Where the Wild Ladies Are is populated by these and many other spirited women—who also happen to be ghosts. This is a realm in which jealousy, stubbornness, and other excessive “feminine” passions are not to be feared or suppressed, but rather cultivated; and, chances are, a man named Mr. Tei will notice your talents and recruit you, dead or alive (preferably dead), to join his mysterious company.

In this witty and exuberant collection of linked stories, Aoko Matsuda takes the rich, millenia-old tradition of Japanese folktales—shapeshifting wives and foxes, magical trees and wells—and wholly reinvents them, presenting a world in which humans are consoled, guided, challenged, and transformed by the only sometimes visible forces that surround them.

Description from Goodreads.

“These ghosts are not the monstrous, vengeful spirits of the original stories; they are real people with agency and personalities, finally freed from the restraints placed on living women. Funny, beautiful, surreal and relatable, this is a phenomenal book.” – The Guardian

“Reading these re-imagined Japanese folktales is a true, delirious pleasure―the uplifting, unwinding kind that otherwise feels in short supply these days. In Where the Wild Ladies Are, Aoko Matsuda has taken traditional stories and infused them with an unhinged feminist energy that feels subversive, sly, and nothing short of revelatory. It’s a reinvention that offers up a whole new way to look at all our foundational myths, and allows us to conceive of a present and future that prioritizes openness and absurdity instead of restricting paradigms and dogma.” – Refinery29

“In this delightful, sharp, poignant collection of linked short stories, Matsuda writes feminist retellings of Japanese folk tales populated by ghosts, all of them women, who are recruited into a mysterious company run by Mr. Tei. These stories are such a joy to read, with a soothing and refreshing quality that centers and celebrates ‘feminine’ energy, which is as expansive here as it is in real life.” – Literary Hub

“Matsuda’s groundbreaking collection turns traditional Japanese ghost and yōkai stories on their heads by championing wild, complex women… Matsuda’s subversive revisionist tales are consistently exciting.” – Publishers Weekly

Available Formats:

Hoopla eBook

The Silence by  Don DeLillo ★

Don DeLillo completed this novel just weeks before the advent of Covid-19. The Silence is the story of a different catastrophic event. Its resonances offer a mysterious solace.

It is Super Bowl Sunday in the year 2022. Five people, dinner, an apartment on the east side of Manhattan. The retired physics professor and her husband and her former student waiting for the couple who will join them from what becomes a dramatic flight from Paris. The conversation ranges from a survey telescope in North-central Chile to a favorite brand of bourbon to Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity.

Then something happens and the digital connections that have transformed our lives are severed.

What follows is a dazzling and profoundly moving conversation about what makes us human. Never has the art of fiction been such an immediate guide to our navigation of a bewildering world. Never have DeLillo’s prescience, imagination, and language been more illuminating and essential.

Description from Goodreads.

“This brief, disturbing story gets the sudden breakdown of society exactly right… This is a small but vivid book, and in its evocation of people in the throes of social crisis, it feels deeply resonant.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“As virus-imperiled readers take in this razor-sharp, yet tenderly forlorn, witty, nearly ritualized, and quietly unnerving tale, they will gingerly discern just how catastrophic this magnitude of silence and isolation would be… Every work by DeLillo is literary news, and the urgency and catalyzing relevance of this concise, disquieting novel will exponentially accelerate interest.” – Booklist

“DeLillo (Zero K) applies his mastery of dialogue to a spare, contemplative story… In the end, readers gain the timely insight that some were born ready for disaster while others remain unequipped… the work stands out among DeLillo’s short fiction.” – Publisher’s Weekly

Available Formats:

Print Book | eBook

A Dog’s Perfect Christmas by  W. Bruce Cameron

The problems fracturing the Goss family as Christmas approaches are hardly unique, though perhaps they are handling them a little differently than most people might. But then a true emergency arises, one with the potential to not only ruin Christmas, but everything holding the family together.

Is the arrival of a lost puppy yet another in the string of calamities facing them, or could the little canine be just what they all need?

A Dog’s Perfect Christmas is a beautiful, poignant, delightful tale of what can happen when family members open their hearts to new possibilities. You’ll find love and tears and laughter—the ideal holiday read.

Description from Goodreads.

“After numerous No. 1 New York Times best-selling doggie delights, Cameron returns with A Dog’s Perfect Christmas, featuring a peppy puppy easing a family’s tough holiday problems.” – Library Journal

“[T]his is one book that you will want to share with the whole family.” – Pulpwood Queens

Available Formats:

Print Book | eBook


The Solace of Bay Leaves by  Leslie Budewitz

Pepper Reece never expected to find solace in bay leaves.

But when her life fell apart at forty and she bought the venerable-but-rundown Spice Shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, her days took a tasty turn. Now she’s savoring the prospect of a flavorful fall and a busy holiday cooking season, until danger bubbles to the surface…

Between managing her shop, worrying about her staff, and navigating a delicious new relationship, Pepper’s firing on all burners. But when her childhood friend Maddie is shot and gravely wounded, the incident is quickly tied to an unsolved murder that left another close friend a widow.

Convinced that the secret to both crimes lies in the history of a once-beloved building, Pepper uses her local-girl contacts and her talent for asking questions to unearth startling links between the past and present—links that suggest her childhood friend may not have been the Golden Girl she appeared to be. Pepper is forced to face her own regrets and unsavory emotions, if she wants to save Maddie’s life—and her own.

Description from Goodreads.

“…complex, well-developed… The character-driven mystery by the award-winning author of Death al Dente is darker than many cozies. Readers attracted to unusual settings and mature, introspective amateur sleuths will appreciate this intricately plotted story depicting the impact of murder on the family and community.” – Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

“Budewitz’s affection for Seattle is apparent on every page. Foodie mystery aficionados will love the mouthwatering recipes at the end.” – Publishers Weekly

“This is an engaging mystery full of twists and turns. The author paints a beautiful picture of the city of Seattle and also gives an insightful look into the world of spices. Pepper is a protagonist that is an inspiration to how much life can be savored and enjoyed after the age of 40. It is never too late to try new things!” – A Cozy Experience

Available Formats:

Hoopla eAudiobook


The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by  Les Payne & Tamara Payne ★

Les Payne, the renowned Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist, embarked in 1990 on a nearly thirty-year-long quest to interview anyone he could find who had actually known Malcolm X—all living siblings of the Malcolm Little family, classmates, street friends, cellmates, Nation of Islam figures, FBI moles and cops, and political leaders around the world. His goal was ambitious: to transform what would become over a hundred hours of interviews into an unprecedented portrait of Malcolm X, one that would separate fact from fiction.

The result is this historic biography that conjures a never-before-seen world of its protagonist, a work whose title is inspired by a phrase Malcolm X used when he saw his Hartford followers stir with purpose, as if the dead were truly arising, to overcome the obstacles of racism. Setting Malcolm’s life not only within the Nation of Islam but against the larger backdrop of American history, the book traces the life of one of the twentieth century’s most politically relevant figures “from street criminal to devoted moralist and revolutionary.”

In tracing Malcolm X’s life from his Nebraska birth in 1925 to his Harlem assassination in 1965, Payne provides searing vignettes culled from Malcolm’s Depression-era youth, describing the influence of his Garveyite parents: his father, Earl, a circuit-riding preacher who was run over by a street car in Lansing, Michigan, in 1929, and his mother, Louise, who continued to instill black pride in her children after Earl’s death. Filling each chapter with resonant drama, Payne follows Malcolm’s exploits as a petty criminal in Boston and Harlem in the 1930s and early 1940s to his religious awakening and conversion to the Nation of Islam in a Massachusetts penitentiary.

With a biographer’s unwavering determination, Payne corrects the historical record and delivers extraordinary revelations—from the unmasking of the mysterious NOI founder “Fard Muhammad,” who preceded Elijah Muhammad; to a hair-rising scene, conveyed in cinematic detail, of Malcolm and Minister Jeremiah X Shabazz’s 1961 clandestine meeting with the KKK; to a minute-by-minute account of Malcolm X’s murder at the Audubon Ballroom.

Introduced by Payne’s daughter and primary researcher, Tamara Payne, who, following her father’s death, heroically completed the biography, The Dead Are Arising is a penetrating and riveting work that affirms the centrality of Malcolm X to the African American freedom struggle.

Description from Goodreads.

“Monumental… Payne’s richly detailed account is based on hundreds of interviews with Malcolm X’s family members, childhood friends, cellmates, allies, and enemies, and meticulously tracks his journey from Omaha… to his emergence as the Nation of Islam’s ‘most gifted and successful proselytizer and demander of justice,’ and his assassination in 1965. Along the way, Payne folds in incisive portraits of [major] figures… An extraordinary and essential portrait of the man behind the icon.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

“…a meticulously researched, compassionately rendered, and fiercely analytical examination of the radical revolutionary as a human being… With new information gleaned from decades of research, Payne sheds fresh light on key moments in Malcolm’s political journey… The Dead Are Arising forces us to ask deeper, more complicated questions about the Black people and places from which our heroes come.” – The Atlantic

“Comprehensive, timely life of the renowned activist and his circuitous rise to prominence… Payne delivers considerable news not just in recounting unknown episodes of Malcolm’s early years, but also in reconstructing events during his time as a devotee of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad… Payne’s accounts of the consequences that rupture and Malcolm’s assassination at the hands of a ‘goon squad’ with ties to the FBI and CIA are eye-opening, and they add a new dimension to our understanding of Malcolm X’s last years… A superb biography and an essential addition to the library of African American political engagement.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“…indispensible… draws on decades of extensive and remarkably revealing interviews… also provides unique perspective on Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination… The book greatly expands our understanding of a revolutionary figure whose influence endures without parallel… a rich and powerful portrait.” – New York Journal of Books

Available Formats:

Print Book | eBook

Stranger Faces by  Namwali Serpell

If evolutionary biologists, ethical philosophers, and social media gurus are to be believed, the face is the basis for what we call “humanity.” The face is considered the source of identity, truth, beauty, authenticity, and empathy. It underlies our ideas about what constitutes a human, how we relate emotionally, what is pleasing to the eye, and how we ought to treat each other. But all of this rests on a specific image of the face. We might call it the ideal face.

What about the strange face, the stranger’s face, the face that thwarts recognition? What do we make of the face that rides the line of legibility? In a collection of speculative essays on a few such stranger faces―the disabled face, the racially ambiguous face, the digital face, the face of the dead―Namwali Serpell probes our contemporary mythology of the face. Stranger Faces imagines a new ethics based on the perverse pleasures we take in the very mutability of faces.

Description from Goodreads.

“Highly intellectual scholarship that casts a smart yet playful eye on pop culture as well as literary theory.” – Boston Globe

“Serpell delivers a brilliant essay collection that, informed by semiotics, proposes a way of thinking about the human face that views each person’s countenance as possessed of culturally and individually constructed meaning that can change radically according to the beholder… Serpell’s vital treatise is one readers will find themselves returning to again and again.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

“A scholarly but engrossing meditation that challenges what we see in portraits—and in our mirrors.” – Kirkus Reviews

Available Formats:

Hoopla eBook

Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise by  Scott Eyman

Born Archibald Leach in 1904, he came to America as a teenaged acrobat to find fame and fortune, but he was always haunted by his past. His father was a feckless alcoholic, and his mother was committed to an asylum when Archie was eleven years old. He believed her to be dead until he was informed she was alive when he was thirty-one years old. Because of this experience Grant would have difficulty forming close attachments throughout his life. He married five times and had numerous affairs.

Despite a remarkable degree of success, Grant remained deeply conflicted about his past, his present, his basic identity, and even the public that worshipped him in movies such as Gunga DinNotorious, and North by Northwest.

Drawing on Grant’s own papers, extensive archival research, and interviews with family and friends, this is the definitive portrait of a movie immortal.

Description from Goodreads.

“Replete with meticulous research, perceptive observations, and sharp critiques, this account of the actor’s life consistently engages and illuminates… Top-shelf film history.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“…enjoyable… …this showbiz chronicle creates an insightful portrait of a man at war with himself.” – Publishers Weekly

“An old Hollywood hand who has written books on John Wayne, Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, among others, Mr. Eyman supplies what feels like the ‘true gen’—the real lowdown—on the directors, producers and studio heads with whom Cary Grant worked. He is up on the complex, even arcane, manipulations of Hollywood finance and is able to explain them lucidly. He knows not only where the bodies are buried but also who buried them.” – Wall Street Journal

Available Formats:

Print Book | eBook

Greenlights by  Matthew McConaughey

I’ve been in this life for fifty years, been trying to work out its riddle for forty-two, and been keeping diaries of clues to that riddle for the last thirty-five. Notes about successes and failures, joys and sorrows, things that made me marvel, and things that made me laugh out loud. How to be fair. How to have less stress. How to have fun. How to hurt people less. How to get hurt less. How to be a good man. How to have meaning in life. How to be more me.

Recently, I worked up the courage to sit down with those diaries. I found stories I experienced, lessons I learned and forgot, poems, prayers, prescriptions, beliefs about what matters, some great photographs, and a whole bunch of bumper stickers. I found a reliable theme, an approach to living that gave me more satisfaction, at the time, and still: If you know how, and when, to deal with life’s challenges—how to get relative with the inevitable—you can enjoy a state of success I call “catching greenlights.”

So I took a one-way ticket to the desert and wrote this book: an album, a record, a story of my life so far. This is fifty years of my sights and seens, felts and figured-outs, cools and shamefuls. Graces, truths, and beauties of brutality. Getting away withs, getting caughts, and getting wets while trying to dance between the raindrops.

Hopefully, it’s medicine that tastes good, a couple of aspirin instead of the infirmary, a spaceship to Mars without needing your pilot’s license, going to church without having to be born again, and laughing through the tears.

It’s a love letter. To life.

It’s also a guide to catching more greenlights—and to realizing that the yellows and reds eventually turn green too.

Good luck.

Description from Goodreads.

“The autobiography of Matthew McConaughey, now 50, is at once a time capsule of aughts Hollywood and a philosophical reflection on how to live life as well as possible (something he calls ‘catching greenlights’). While the book has its bombshells and juicy tidbits, it isn’t your typical celebrity memoir; the writing is good — poetic at times — and it reads more like a journal he opened a vein or two to write.” – Vulture

“So many great stories about how he tries lives his life in positive, fun way. Even if you’re not a fan of his this book is awesome.” – Red Carpet Crash

“…offers a shotgun seat to all the l-i-v-i-n that McConaughey has accumulated… filled with homespun wisdom that McConaughey has wrung from his toils, travels and that time he got arrested while playing bongos in the nude. He has fortified his remembrances with the coinages and maxims he dutifully recorded in decades’ worth of personal journals and which continue to spill naturally from his mouth… It is a book that is constantly evaluating itself and its reasons for being, much like its author.” – New York Times

Available Formats:

Print Book | eBook

Handsome: Stories of an Awkward Girl Boy Human by  Holly Lorka

As a horny little kid, Holly Lorka had no idea why God had put her in the wrong body and made her want to kiss girls. She had questions: Was she a monster? Would she ever be able to grow sideburns? And most importantly, where was her penis?

The problem was, it was the 1970s, so there were no answers yet.

Here, Lorka tells the story—by turns hilarious and poignant—of her romp through the first fifty years of her life searching for sex, love, acceptance, and answers to her questions. With a sharp wit, endearing innocence, and indelible sense of optimism, she struggles through the awkward years (spoiler: that’s all of them) and discovers that what she thought were mistakes are actually powerful tools to launch her into a magical—and ridiculous—life.

Oh, and she discovers that she can buy a penis at the store, too.

Description from Goodreads.

“Lorka’s ability to balance life’s harshness alongside its ridiculousness and to poke fun at herself make for a read that’s never disingenuous or boring… A delightful remembrance that’s brimming with honesty and wit.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

Handsome will make you laugh, cry and want to buy better hair products.” – Parade

“Funny, beautiful, inspiring and eye-opening, she presents a life experience that you may never have even considered before. An undeniably successful memoir.” – Readers Lane

Available Formats:

Hoopla eBook

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