Best New Books: Week of 2/8/22

“Art and love are the same thing: It’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you.” – Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story

The Arc by  Tory Henwood

Fiction / Romance.

35-year-old Ursula Byrne, VP of Strategic Audacity at a branding agency in Manhattan, is successful, witty, whip-smart, and single. She’s tried all the dating apps, and let’s just say: she’s underwhelmed by her options. You’d think that by now someone would have come up with something more bespoke; a way for users to be more tailored about who and what they want in a life partner–how hard could that be?

Enter The Arc: a highly secretive, super-sophisticated matchmaking service that uses a complex series of emotional, psychological and physiological assessments to architect partnerships that will go the distance. The price tag is high, the promise ambitious–a level of lifelong compatibility that would otherwise be unattainable. In other words, The Arc will find your ideal mate.

Ursula is paired with 42-year-old lawyer Rafael Banks. From moment one, this feels like the electric, lasting love they’ve each been seeking their whole adult lives. But as their relationship unfolds in unanticipated ways, the two begin to realize that true love is never a sure thing. And the arc of a relationship is never predictable… even when it’s fully optimized.

Description from Goodreads.

“A delightful debut about love and dating and modern womanhood that asks as many questions about self-determination and free will as it answers.” – Shelf Awareness

“Funny and modern, The Arc is like a rom-com’s cooler big sister. It’s as much a satire as it is a romance, roasting our reliance on high-tech solutions for matters of the heart.” – Real Simple

“Expect to fall in love with the characters while laughing out loud at the all too realistic, yet hilarious, jabs at startup culture. You’ll reach the end and want to start all over again. Lovers of Rebecca Serle, Sally Rooney, and Taylor Jenkins Reid, this one was written for you.” – Daily Hive

The Book of the Most Precious Substance by  Sara Gran

Fiction / Horror / Suspense.

A mysterious book that promises unlimited power and unrivaled sexual pleasure. A down-on-her-luck book dealer hoping for the sale of a lifetime. And a twist so shocking, no one will come out unscathed.

After a tragedy too painful to bear, former novelist Lily Albrecht has resigned herself to a dull, sexless life as a rare book dealer. Until she gets a lead on a book that just might turn everything around. The Book of the Most Precious Substance is a 17th century manual on sex magic, rumored to be the most powerful occult book ever written—if it really exists at all. And some of the wealthiest people in the world are willing to pay Lily a fortune to find it—if she can. Her search for the book takes her from New York to New Orleans to Munich to Paris, searching the dark corners of power where the world’s wealthiest people use black magic to fulfill their desires. Will Lily fulfill her own desires, and join them? Or will she lose it all searching for a ghost? The Book of the Most Precious Substance is an addictive erotic thriller about the lengths we’ll go to get what we need—and what we want.

Description from Goodreads.

“Gran’s writing, like the grimoire, is palpably seductive. The search for pleasure and magic is an aphrodisiac, one that pulses on the page.” – New York Times

“Gran perfectly captures the eccentric world of antiquarian bookselling while portraying a profound and magical reckoning with loss and the possibility of going on. She has outdone herself. ” – Publisher’s Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

“While Lily’s hunt propels the story forward, it is Gran’s frequently exquisite prose that demands investment from its audience.” – BookPage, STARRED REVIEW

Clean Air by  Sarah Blake

Fiction / Science Fiction / Mystery.

The climate apocalypse has come and gone, and in the end it wasn’t the temperature climbing or the waters rising. It was the trees. The world became overgrown, creating enough pollen to render the air unbreathable.

In the decade since the event known as the Turning, humanity has rebuilt, and Izabel has gotten used to the airtight domes that now contain her life. She raises her young daughter, Cami, and attempts to make peace with her mother’s death. She tries hard to be satisfied with this safe, prosperous new world, but instead she just feels stuck.

And then the peace of her town is shattered. Someone starts slashing through the domes at night, exposing people to the deadly pollen—a serial killer. Almost simultaneously, Cami begins sleep-talking, having whole conversations about the murders that she doesn’t remember after she wakes. Izabel becomes fixated on the killer, on both tracking him down and understanding him. What could compel someone to take so many lives after years dedicated to sheer survival, with humanity finally flourishing again?

Suspenseful and startling, but also written with a wry, observant humor, Clean Air is the second novel from poet Sarah Blake, author of the award-winning literary debut Naamah. It will appeal to readers of The Need, The Leftovers, and Fever Dream as it probes motherhood, grief, control, and choice.

Description from Goodreads.

“Suspenseful and startling.” – The Nerd Daily

“The skillful blend of postapocalyptic science fiction, supernatural murder mystery, and domestic drama is unexpected and entirely engrossing.” – Publishers Weekly

“[An] engrossing and suspenseful tale that simultaneously delivers a lyrical homage to motherhood and a piercing vision of the fragility of humankind’s relationship with the natural world.” – Booklist

Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage by  Heather Havrilesky

Nonfiction / Memoir / Relationships.

If falling in love is the peak of human experience, then marriage is the slow descent down that mountain, on a trail built from conflict, compromise, and nagging doubts. Considering the limited economic advantages to marriage, the deluge of other mate options a swipe away, and the fact that almost half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce anyway, why do so many of us still chain ourselves to one human being for life?

In Foreverland, Heather Havrilesky illustrates the delights, aggravations, and sublime calamities of her marriage over the span of fifteen years, charting an unpredictable course from meeting her one true love to slowly learning just how much energy is required to keep that love aflame. This refreshingly honest portrait of a marriage reveals that our relationships are not simply “happy” or “unhappy,” but something much murkier–at once unsavory, taxing, and deeply satisfying. With tales of fumbled proposals, harrowing suburban migrations, external temptations, and the bewildering insults of growing older, Foreverland is a work of rare candor and insight. Havrilesky traces a path from daydreaming about forever for the first time to understanding what a tedious, glorious drag forever can be.

Description from Goodreads.

“Both married and unmarried audiences will find something to cherish in this book on what it means to have a good marriage, what a marriage is at all, and how to retain one’s identity, as well as desires, in the face of binding yourself to another.” – Literary Hub

“Havrilesky’s candid reflections will delight those who’ve taken the plunge, for better or for worse.” – Publishers Weekly

“Havrilesky successfully provides ample opportunities for readers to laugh, commiserate, and critique, regardless of their phase in life or marital status.” – Library Journal

Homicide and Halo-Halo by  Mia P. Manansala

Fiction / Mystery.

Things are heating up for Lila Macapagal. Not in her love life, which she insists on keeping nonexistent despite the attention of two very eligible bachelors. Or her professional life, since she can’t bring herself to open her new cafe after the unpleasantness that occurred a few months ago at her aunt’s Filipino restaurant, Tita Rosie’s Kitchen. No, things are heating up quite literally, since summer, her least favorite season, has just started.

To add to her feelings of sticky unease, Lila’s little town of Shady Palms has resurrected the Miss Teen Shady Palms Beauty Pageant, which she won many years ago–a fact that serves as a wedge between Lila and her cousin slash rival, Bernadette. But when the head judge of the pageant is murdered and Bernadette becomes the main suspect, the two must put aside their differences and solve the case–because it looks like one of them might be next.

Description from Goodreads.

“While the follow-up to Arsenic and Adobo is a cozy mystery, it’s darker, dealing with PTSD, predatory behavior, dismissive attitudes toward mental health, and other issues. Filipino American food and culture, as well as family and community, remain essential elements in the story.” – Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

“[A] delightful small-town mystery with fun characters and an easy-to-read story.” – Red Carpet Crash

Jawbone by  Mónica Ojeda

Fiction / Horror / Suspense.

Fernanda and Annelise are so close they are practically sisters: a double image, inseparable. So how does Fernanda end up bound on the floor of a deserted cabin, held hostage by one of her teachers and estranged from Annelise?

When Fernanda, Annelise, and their friends from the Delta Bilingual Academy convene after school, Annelise leads them in thrilling but increasingly dangerous rituals to a rhinestoned, Dior-scented, drag-queen god of her own invention. Even more perilous is the secret Annelise and Fernanda share, rooted in a dare in which violence meets love. Meanwhile, their literature teacher Miss Clara, who is obsessed with imitating her dead mother, struggles to preserve her deteriorating sanity. Each day she edges nearer to a total break with reality.

Interweaving pop culture references and horror concepts drawn from from Herman Melville, H. P. Lovecraft, and anonymous “creepypastas,” Jawbone is an ominous, multivocal novel that explores the terror inherent in the pure potentiality of adolescence and the fine line between desire and fear.

Description from Goodreads.

“[A] hair-raising novel about the horrors of adolescence… With terrifying ease, Ojeda illustrates how womanhood is characterized by dualities: fearful and feared, desired and desiring. The line between them is so thin there is hardly a difference. Women’s potential for duality makes us powerful, but it is also the reason that we have to live in fear.” – Chicago Review of Books

“Delectable… There are echoes of Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson at play, but the vision is ultimately Ojeda’s own―delicious in how it seduces and disturbs the reader as the girls rely on horror both as entertainment and as a way of staving off the actual terrors of growing up. This is creepy good fun.” – Publishers Weekly

“Edgar Allan Poe meets a few of the mean girls… Ojeda’s slow reveal of who did what to whom (and, maybe, why) follows a twisting course using transcripts of Fernanda’s dialogues with a therapist and passages which echo the increasing dissolution of Miss Clara’s already tenuous grip on composure… Every good horror story needs a victim; Ojeda’s monsters and victims wear the same faces.” – Kirkus Reviews

The Last Grand Duchess by  Bryn Turnbull

Fiction / Historical Fiction.

Grand Duchess Olga Romanov comes of age amid a shifting tide for the great dynasties of Europe. But even as unrest simmers in the capital, Olga is content to live within the confines of the sheltered life her parents have built for her and her three sisters: hiding from the world on account of their mother’s ill health, their brother Alexei’s secret affliction, and rising controversy over Father Grigori Rasputin, the priest on whom the Tsarina has come to rely. Olga’s only escape from the seclusion of Alexander Palace comes from her aunt, who takes pity on her and her sister Tatiana, inviting them to grand tea parties amid the shadow court of Saint Petersburg. Finally, she glimpses a world beyond her mother’s Victorian sensibilities—a world of opulent ballrooms, scandalous flirtation, and whispered conversation.

But as war approaches, the palaces of Russia are transformed. Olga and her sisters trade their gowns for nursing habits, assisting in surgeries and tending to the wounded bodies and minds of Russia’s military officers. As troubling rumors about her parents trickle in from the Front, Olga dares to hope that a budding romance might survive whatever the future may hold. But when tensions run high and supplies run low, the controversy over Rasputin grows into fiery protest, and calls for revolution threaten to end 300 years of Romanov rule.

At turns glittering and harrowing, The Last Grand Duchess is a story about dynasty, duty, and love, but above all, it’s the story of a family who would choose devotion to each other over everything—including their lives.

Description from Goodreads.

“Turnbull pries off the veneer that masked Olga as a blue-blooded victim of the Bolshevik Revolution; instead she gives Olga a three-dimensional personhood with a verve that evokes Scarlett O’Hara… An entrancing tribute to a Victorian lass of tragic grace.” – Library Journal

“Turnbull again successfully humanizes a family of powerful historical figures… Though the tragic story has been fictionalized effectively in novels such as Carolyn Meyer’s Anastasia and Her Sisters, Turnbull adds to the lore by focusing on a more obscure Romanov, with a gift at making Olga’s situation painfully tangible. This amply justifies taking another look at the lives of the condemned royals.” – Publishers Weekly

My Mess Is a Bit of a Life: Adventures in Anxiety by  Georgia Pritchett

Nonfiction / Memoir / Mental Health.

When Georgia Pritchett found herself lost for words–a bit of a predicament for a comedy writer–she turned to a therapist, who suggested she try writing down some of the things that worried her. But instead of a grocery list of concerns, Georgia wrote this book.

A natural born worrywart, Georgia’s life has been defined by her quirky anxiety. During childhood, she was agitated about the monsters under her bed (Were they comfy enough?). Going into labor, she fretted about making a fuss (“Sorry to interrupt, but the baby is coming out of my body,” I said politely). Winning a prestigious award, she agonized over receiving free gifts after the ceremony (It was an excruciating experience. Mortifying).

Soul-baring yet lighthearted, poignant yet written with a healthy dose of self-deprecation, My Mess Is a Bit of a Life is a tour through the carnival funhouse of Georgia’s life, from her anxiety-ridden early childhood where disaster loomed around every corner (When I was little I used to think that sheep were clouds that had fallen to earth. On cloudy days I used to worry that I would be squashed by a sheep), through the challenges of breaking into an industry dominated by male writers, to the exquisite terror (and incomparable joy) of raising children.

Delightfully offbeat, painfully honest, full of surprising wonders, and delivering plenty of hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments, My Mess Is a Bit of a Life reveals a talented, vulnerable, and strong woman in all her wisecracking weirdness, and makes us love it–and her–too.

Description from Goodreads.

“The delivery’s delightful and as finely tuned as poetry or a tight stand-up routine. Her torment, as well as her joys, are readers’ gain.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

“Pritchett is able to describe the ways she feels—as child and teen constantly worrying, as an adult, struggling to find relief from her feelings—in a manner that is both relatable and meaningful. Readers will find lots to like about this memoir, especially those who may have experience with the emotions Pritchett details.” – Booklist

“Laugh-out loud funny at times, poignant and sincere at others, these musings on everything from childhood to motherhood are relatable, enjoyable and oh-so-welcome.” – Good Morning America

The Nineties by  Chuck Klosterman ★

Nonfiction / History / Pop Culture.

It was long ago, but not as long as it seems: The Berlin Wall fell and the Twin Towers collapsed. In between, one presidential election was allegedly decided by Ross Perot while another was plausibly decided by Ralph Nader. In the beginning, almost every name and address was listed in a phone book, and everyone answered their landlines because you didn’t know who it was. By the end, exposing someone’s address was an act of emotional violence, and nobody picked up their new cell phone if they didn’t know who it was. The ’90s brought about a revolution in the human condition we’re still groping to understand. Happily, Chuck Klosterman is more than up to the job.

Beyond epiphenomena like Cop Killer and Titanic and Zima, there were wholesale shifts in how society was perceived: the rise of the internet, pre-9/11 politics, and the paradoxical belief that nothing was more humiliating than trying too hard. Pop culture accelerated without the aid of a machine that remembered everything, generating an odd comfort in never being certain about anything. On a ’90s Thursday night, more people watched any random episode of Seinfeld than the finale of Game of Thrones. But nobody thought that was important; if you missed it, you simply missed it. It was the last era that held to the idea of a true, hegemonic mainstream before it all began to fracture, whether you found a home in it or defined yourself against it.

In The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman makes a home in all of it: the film, the music, the sports, the TV, the politics, the changes regarding race and class and sexuality, the yin/yang of Oprah and Alan Greenspan. In perhaps no other book ever written would a sentence like, “The video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was not more consequential than the reunification of Germany” make complete sense. Chuck Klosterman has written a multi-dimensional masterpiece, a work of synthesis so smart and delightful that future historians might well refer to this entire period as Klostermanian.

Description from Goodreads.

“Wonderfully researched, compellingly written, and often very funny, this is a superb reassessment of an underappreciated decade from a stupendously gifted essayist.” – Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

“Klosterman zooms in on the interplay between the titular decade’s opposing generations—Generation X and Baby Boomers—and puts the era’s technological transformations in their rightful historical contexts… His greatest service here is his resistance to assign sharp edges where there is only an underwhelming, fuzzy consensus.” – Vulture

“An entertaining journey through the last decade of the 20th century… [Klosterman] brings the decade to vivid new life… As in his previous books of cultural criticism, Klosterman delivers a multifaceted portrait that’s both fun and insightful. A fascinating examination of a period still remembered by most, refreshingly free of unnecessary mythmaking.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“[T]he 1990s is about the arrival of new media technologies that would upend our lives in endless ways large and small… Klosterman’s take on all of this often is insightful, prompting the reader to think about what the internet and social media have done to our brains, to our sense of selves, to our physical environments… [A]n entertaining tour. Klosterman skillfully analyzes Gen-X touchstones like Quentin Tarantino and Seinfeld, Nirvana and Garth Brooks.” – The Oregonian

The Other Family by  Wendi Corsi Staub

Fiction / Suspense / Mystery.

The watcher sees who you are… and knows what you did.

It’s the perfect home for the perfect family: pretty Nora Howell, her handsome husband, their two teenage daughters, and lovable dog. As California transplants making a fresh start in Brooklyn, they expected to live in a shoebox, but the brownstone has a huge kitchen, lots of light, and a backyard. The catch: its previous residents were victims of a grisly triple homicide that remains unsolved.

Soon, peculiar things begin happening. The pug is nosing around like a bloodhound. Nora unearths a long-hidden rusty box in the flowerbed. Oldest daughter Stacey, obsessed with the family murdered in their house, pokes into the bloody past and becomes convinced that a stranger is watching the house. Watching them.

She’s right. But one of the Howells will recognize his face. Because one of them has a secret that will blindside the others with a truth that lies shockingly close to home–and to this one’s terrifying history.

Description from Goodreads.

“Expect to sleep with the lights on.” – PopSugar

“The prolific Corsi Staub turns in a stellar performance, creating a palpable sense of dread and generating the kind of suspense that keeps readers glued to the page.” – Booklist

“[A] complex and chilling tale of secrets and deception that generates tension that hooks the reader from the start and maintains that hold through myriad twists and a final chapter that delivers revelatory and harrowing shocks. Staub excels… as she spins an addictive tale…” – Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

Very Cold People by  Sarah Manguso


“My parents didn’t belong in Waitsfield, but they moved there anyway.”

For Ruthie, the frozen town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, is all she has ever known.

Once home to the country’s oldest and most illustrious families–the Cabots, the Lowells: the “first, best people”–by the tail end of the twentieth century, it is an unforgiving place awash with secrets.

Forged in this frigid landscape Ruthie has been dogged by feelings of inadequacy her whole life. Hers is no picturesque New England childhood but one of swap meets and factory seconds and powdered milk. Shame blankets her like the thick snow that regularly buries nearly everything in Waitsfield.

As she grows older, Ruthie slowly learns how the town’s prim facade conceals a deeper, darker history, and how silence often masks a legacy of harm–from the violence that runs down the family line to the horrors endured by her high school friends, each suffering a fate worse than the last. For Ruthie, Waitsfield is a place to be survived, and a girl like her would be lucky to get out alive.

In her eagerly anticipated debut novel, Sarah Manguso has written, with characteristic precision, a masterwork on growing up in–and out of–the suffocating constraints of a very old, and very cold, small town. At once an ungilded portrait of girlhood at the crossroads of history and social class as well as a vital confrontation with an all-American whiteness where the ice of emotional restraint meets the embers of smoldering rage, Very Cold People is a haunted jewel of a novel from one of our most virtuosic literary writers.

Description from Goodreads.

“Crackles like a room-temperature beverage poured over ice… Manguso portrays the fears surrounding girlhood with a blistering clarity.” – Washington Post

“This gritty coming-of-age tale follows friendships, crushes, and fantasies… Manguso paints a haunting portrait of innocence lost… masterfully unveil[ing] the tragic and disturbing fates of girls in Waitsfield. A gripping debut novel on the vulnerability of girlhood for readers who enjoy steady but intense storytelling.” – Booklist

“A bracing coming-of-age story and master class in controlled style… Manguso is a lovely writer about unlovely things… But the elegance doesn’t diminish the emotional impact of her story and the journey of becoming mature enough to understand transgression, be horrified by it, and search for a means to escape it… A taut, blisteringly smart novel, both measured and rageful.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

A Very Nice Girl by  Imogen Crimp


Anna doesn’t fit in. Not with her wealthy classmates at the selective London Conservatory where she unexpectedly wins a place after university, not with the family she left behind, and definitely not with Max, a man she meets in the bar where she sings for cash. He’s everything she’s not—rich, tailored to precision, impossible to read—and before long Anna is hooked, desperate to hold his attention, and determined to ignore the warning signs that this might be a toxic relationship.

As Anna shuttles from grueling rehearsals to brutal auditions, she finds herself torn between two conflicting desires: the drive to nurture her fledgling singing career, which requires her undivided attention, and the longing for human connection. When the stakes increase, and the roles she’s playing—both on stage and off—begin to feel all-consuming, Anna must reckon with the fact that, in carefully performing what’s expected of her as a woman, she risks losing sight of herself completely.

Both exceedingly contemporary and classic, A Very Nice Girl reminds us that even once we have taken possession of our destinies we still have the power to set all we hold dear on fire.

Description from Goodreads.

“Crimp triumphs… An intoxicatingly powerful read that will become your latest obsession.” – Tatler

“Crimp, a trained opera singer, offers absorbing, rich prose that brings dramatic scenes to life and illuminates delicate manipulations in a controlling relationship.” – Booklist

“A Rooney-esque exploration of power and class in young women’s relationships, heightened by its brilliant opera-world setting.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW


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