Best New Books: Week of 10/4/22

“You may be born into a family, but you walk into friendships. Some you’ll discover you should put behind you. Others are worth every risk.” – Adam Silvera, They Both Die at the End

All That Is Wicked: A Gilded-Age Story of Murder and the Race to Decode the Criminal Mind by  Kate Winkler Dawson

Nonfiction / History / True crime / psychology.

All That is WickedEdward Rulloff was a brilliant yet utterly amoral murderer–some have called him a “Victorian-era Hannibal Lecter”–whose crimes spanned decades and whose victims were chosen out of revenge, out of envy, and sometimes out of necessity. From his humble beginnings in upstate New York to the dazzling salons and social life he established in New York City, at every turn Rulloff used his intelligence and regal bearing to evade detection and avoid punishment. He could talk his way out of any crime… until one day, Rulloff’s luck ran out.

By 1871 Rulloff sat chained in his cell–a psychopath holding court while curious 19th-century mind hunters tried to understand what made him tick. From alienists (early psychiatrists who tried to analyze the source of his madness) to neurologists (who wanted to dissect his brain) to phrenologists (who analyzed the bumps on his head to determine his character), each one thought he held the key to understanding the essential question: is evil born or made? Eventually, Rulloff’s brain would be placed in a jar at Cornell University as the prize specimen of their anatomy collection… where it still sits today, slowly moldering in a dusty jar. But his story–and its implications for the emerging field of criminal psychology–were just beginning.

Expanded from season one of her podcast on the Exactly Right network, in All That Is Wicked Kate Winkler Dawson draws on hundreds of source materials and never-before-shared historical documents to present one of the first glimpses into the mind of a serial killer–a century before the term was coined–through the scientists whose work would come to influence criminal justice for decades to come.

“Dawson seamlessly weaves in examples from the lives of more famous killers, like Ted Bundy, to draw parallels about what makes a serial killer tick. Meticulously researched and incredibly fascinating, true-crime fans will enjoy this look into a lesser-known killer and the men who studied him.” – Booklist

“As the author memorably portrays an unrepentant killer, she engagingly grapples with the still-unresolved question of whether psychopathic evil emerges from brain anomalies or nurture and the environment—or some combination thereof. Another darkly compelling work from an engrossing storyteller.” – Kirkus Reviews

American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis by  Adam Hochschild

Nonfiction / History.

American MidnightFrom award-winning, New York Times bestselling historian Adam Hochschild, a fast-paced, revelatory new account of a pivotal but neglected period in American history: World War I and its stormy aftermath, when bloodshed and repression on the home front nearly doomed American democracy.

The nation was on the brink. Angry mobs burned Black churches to the ground and chased down pacifists and immigrants. Well over a thousand men and women were jailed solely for what they had written or said, even in private. An astonishing 250,000 people joined a nationwide vigilante group—sponsored by the Department of Justice.

This was America during and after the Great War: a brief but appalling era blighted by torture, censorship, and killings. Adam Hochschild brings to life this troubled period, which stretched from 1917 to 1921, through the interwoven tales of a colorful cast of characters: some well-known, among them the sphinxlike Woodrow Wilson and the ambitious young bureaucrat J. Edgar Hoover; others less familiar, such as the fiery antiwar advocate Kate Richards O’Hare and the outspoken Leo Wendell, a labor radical who was frequently arrested and wholly trusted by his comrades—but who was in fact Hoover’s star undercover agent.

A groundbreaking work of narrative history, American Midnight recalls these horrifying yet inspiring four years, when some brave Americans strove to keep their fractured country democratic, while ruthless others stimulated toxic currents of racism, nativism, red-baiting, and contempt for the rule of law—poisons that feel ominously familiar today.

“In American Midnight, the historian Adam Hochschild, celebrated for his King Leopold’s Ghost and other volumes, recounts it with verve and insight… one of several fresh looks at a period that had previously received little widespread attention… Hochschild narrates a time as unsettled, frightening, and (perhaps) transformative as our own.” – Boston Globe

“Exceptionally well written, impeccably organized, and filled with colorful, fully developed historical characters… A riveting, resonant account of the fragility of freedom in one of many shameful periods in U.S. history.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“Meticulously researched, fluidly written, and frequently enraging, this is a timely reminder of the ‘vigilant respect for civil rights and Constitutional safeguards’ needed to protect democracy and forestall authoritarianism.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder by  William Shatner with  Joshua Brandon

nonfiction / memoir / film / television / Music.

Boldly GoLong before Gene Roddenberry put him on a starship to explore the galaxy, long before he actually did venture to space, William Shatner was gripped by his own quest for knowledge and meaning. Though his eventful life has been nothing short of extraordinary, Shatner is still never so thrilled as when he experiences something that inspires him to simply say, “Wow.”

Within these affecting, entertaining, and informative essays, he demonstrates that astonishing possibilities and true wonder are all around us. By revealing stories of his life—some delightful, others tragic—Shatner reflects on what he has learned along the way to his ninth decade and how important it is to apply the joy of exploration to our own lives. Insightful, irreverent, and with his signature wit and dramatic flair, Boldly Go is an unputdownable celebration of all that our miraculous universe holds for us.

“Even those who aren’t fans of Shatner’s acting or his music will find much to appreciate in the insights he’s gleaned over his long, productive life.” – Booklist

“Shatner’s curiosity shines through as he leavens the seriousness of his lifelong quest for meaning with his signature self-effacing humor… the result is a refreshingly self-aware portrait of a man determined to live every moment to the fullest.” – Publishers Weekly

“A great gift idea for virtually anyone, but especially those who appreciate sage caring humanitarians and animal lovers.” – SRQ

Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus by  David Quammen

Nonfiction / science / health / history / current events.

BreathlessBreathless is the story of SARS-CoV-2 and its fierce journey through the human population, as seen by the scientists who study its origin, its ever-changing nature, and its capacity to kill us. David Quammen expertly shows how strange new viruses emerge from animals into humans as we disrupt wild ecosystems, and how those viruses adapt to their human hosts, sometimes causing global catastrophe. He explains why this coronavirus will probably be a “forever virus,” destined to circulate among humans and bedevil us endlessly, in one variant form or another. As scientists labor to catch it, comprehend it, and control it, with their high-tech tools and methods, the virus finds ways of escape.

Based on interviews with nearly one hundred scientists, including leading virologists in China and around the world, Quammen explains that:
-Infectious disease experts saw this pandemic coming
-Some scientists, for more than two decades, warned that “the next big one” would be caused by a changeable new virus—very possibly a coronavirus—but such warnings were ignored for political or economic reasons
-The precise origins of this virus may not be known for years, but some clues are compelling, and some suppositions can be dismissed
-And much more.

Breathless takes you inside the frantic international effort to understand and control SARS-CoV-2 as if we were peering over the shoulders of the brilliant scientists who led the chase.

“A masterful scientific detective story… Quammen delivers a demanding and essential book about COVID-19.” – Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

“Science journalist Quammen recounts in page-turning detail the scientific response to the Covid-19 pandemic… A must-read for anyone looking to get a better handle on the pandemic so far.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

“An authoritative new history of Covid-19 and its predecessors… [Quammen] constructs a masterful account of viral evolution culminating in Covid-19… Unsettling global health news brilliantly delivered by an expert.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America by  Maggie Haberman ★

nonfiction / biography / history / politics.

Confidence ManFew journalists working today have covered Donald Trump more extensively than Maggie Haberman. And few understand him and his motivations better. Now, demonstrating her majestic command of this story, Haberman reveals in full the depth of her understanding of the 45th president himself, and of what the Trump phenomenon means.

Interviews with hundreds of sources and numerous interviews over the years with Trump himself portray a complicated and often contradictory historical figure. Capable of kindness but relying on casual cruelty as it suits his purposes. Pugnacious. Insecure. Lonely. Vindictive. Menacing. Smarter than his critics contend and colder and more calculating than his allies believe. A man who embedded himself in popular culture, galvanizing support for a run for high office that he began preliminary spadework for 30 years ago, to ultimately become a president who pushed American democracy to the brink.

The through-line of Trump’s life and his presidency is the enduring question of what is in it for him or what he needs to say to survive short increments of time in the pursuit of his own interests.

Confidence Man is also, inevitably, about the world that produced such a singular character, giving rise to his career and becoming his first stage. It is also about a series of relentlessly transactional relationships. The ones that shaped him most were with girlfriends and wives, with Roy Cohn, with George Steinbrenner, with Mike Tyson and Don King and Roger Stone, with city and state politicians like Robert Morgenthau and Rudy Giuliani, with business partners, with prosecutors, with the media, and with the employees who toiled inside what they commonly called amongst themselves the “Trump Disorganization.”

That world informed the one that Trump tried to recreate while in the White House. All of Trump’s behavior as President had echoes in what came before. In this revelatory and newsmaking book, Haberman brings together the events of his life into a single mesmerizing work. It is the definitive account of one of the most norms-shattering and consequential eras in American political history.

“[There] are revelations aplenty here. But this is a book more notable for the quality of its observations about Trump’s character than for its newsbreaks. It will be a primary source about the most vexing president in American history for years to come… [Haberman] is an exemplar of her craft, relentless, judicious and even-keeled, giving credit, where due, to her colleagues and fellow biographers, while admitting and adjusting her occasional mistakes… Maggie Haberman has been there for it all.” – New York Times

“…fascinating… consistently stunning reporting… She gets Trump to let his guard down, which she frames in the sort of spot-on context that is sadly and increasingly rare in our tribalized political media ecosphere.” – Mediaite

“…extensive… The book delves into some of the most contentious episodes of his presidency… Some of the book’s episodes border on the bizarre…” – Washington Post

“Haberman, the New York Times’ Trump whisperer, delivers. Her latest book is much more than 600 pages of context, scoop and drama. It is a political epic… Haberman gives Trump and those close to him plenty of voice – and rope. The result is a cacophonous symphony. Confidence Man informs and entertains but is simultaneously absolutely not funny” – The Guardian

Double Exposure by  Ava Barry

Fiction / Mystery / suspense.

Double ExposureFour years ago, a beautiful young heiress survived an attack that claimed the lives of both of her parents. The crime made headlines all over Los Angeles, both for the vicious nature of the killings and the seemingly random nature of the attack: nothing was stolen, and the van Aust family had no obvious enemies. Melia van Aust fled the city soon after the murders – which were never solved – but her brother Jasper has not been seen since.

After a childhood spent in the shadow of her famous parents, Rainey Hall understands the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. She still hasn’t recovered from a tragedy that tore her own family apart six years before. It’s part of the reason why she started her own private investigation agency—to aid victims of crimes that might otherwise go unsolved.

When Melia returns to Los Angeles and moves back into her family home, someone begins sending her increasingly violent messages that allude to the killing of her parents. She hires Rainey to track down the culprit and find her missing brother. Touched by the similarities between their lives, Rainey feels compelled to protect Melia, even when it becomes clear that their relationship has become more than professional.

Soon, Rainey finds herself falling down the rabbit hole of Melia’s life. Her quest to find Melia’s stalker will bring her in contact with disgraced royals, seedy neighbors, violent ex-boyfriends and former staff, each one with their own set of secrets. As the threats against Melia escalate and the two women are drawn together, it’s only a matter of time before another victim turns up.

“Chilling.” – People

“The plot of this exhilarating and intricate novel ebbs and flows between fast-paced action and relaxed moments of narrative exposition.” – Booklist

“[A] seductive neo-noir… This evocative novel demonstrates that both the city [Los Angeles] and its magic remain very much alive.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

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Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands by  Linda Ronstadt &  Lawrence Downes; photographs by  Bill Steen

Nonfiction / Memoir / Food / Music.

Feels Like HomeIn Feels Like Home, Grammy award-winning singer Linda Ronstadt effortlessly evokes the barometric pressure of the high desert, a landscape etched by sunlight and carved by wind, offering a personal tour built around meals and memories of the place where she came of age.

Growing up the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and a descendant of Spanish settlers near northern Sonora, Ronstadt’s intimate new memoir celebrates the marvelous flavors and indomitable people on both sides of what was once a porous border whose denizens were happy to exchange recipes and gather around campfires to sing the ballads that shaped Ronstadt’s musical heritage.

Following her bestselling musical memoir, Simple Dreams, this book seamlessly braids together Ronstadt’s recollections of people and their passions in a region little understood in the rest of the United States. This road trip through the desert, written in collaboration with former New York Times writer Lawrence Downes and illustrated throughout with beautiful photographs by Bill Steen, features recipes for traditional Sonoran dishes and a bevy of revelations for Ronstadt’s admirers. If this book were a radio signal, you might first pick it up on an Arizona highway, well south of Phoenix, coming into the glow of Ronstadt’s hometown of Tucson. It would be playing something old and Mexican, from a time when the border was a place not of peril but of possibility.

“Illuminates the culture, food and natural wonders of the Sonoran Desert, which stretches from [Ronstadt’s] Arizona childhood home through a large swatch of northern Mexico.” – Parade

“[A] celebration of culture, music, geography, food and family ties that know no borders. It is eloquently told by a singer who has devoted much of her career to transcending musical borders… [Ronstadt’s] memoir is a valentine to her family and the Mexican heritage she has long celebrated in words and music.” – San Diego Union-Tribune

“[A] very sweet-hearted book… it hits a lot of sweet spots for what is kind of the perfect coffee table book.” – KJZZ Radio

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The First to Die at the End by  Adam Silvera

Fiction / Young adult

The First to Die at the EndIt’s the night before Death-Cast goes live, and there’s one question on everyone’s mind: Can Death-Cast actually predict when someone will die, or is it just an elaborate hoax?

Orion Pagan has waited years for someone to tell him that he’s going to die. He has a serious heart condition, and he signed up for Death-Cast so he could know what’s coming.

Valentino Prince is restarting his life in New York. He has a long and promising future ahead and he only registered for Death-Cast after his twin sister nearly died in a car accident.

Orion and Valentino cross paths in Times Square and immediately feel a deep connection. But when the first round of End Day calls goes out, their lives are changed forever—one of them receives a call, and the other doesn’t. Though neither boy is certain how the day will end, they know they want to spend it together… even if that means their goodbye will be heartbreaking.

Told with acclaimed author Adam Silvera’s signature bittersweet touch, this story celebrates the lasting impact that people have on each other and proves that life is always worth living to the fullest.

“Silvera crafts a web of intricately interconnected character perspectives and conflicts… A rush of emotion and suspense.” – Kirkus Reviews

“This prequel to Silvera’s They Both Die at the End is an extraordinary—no, make that a brilliant—book with a riveting plot. Despite its considerable length, interest never flags as the wonderfully crafted characters’ relationship develops all the way through the book’s unforgettable ending. Awards committees, don’t miss this one. ” – Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

“[This] book will make you question everything you believe in… We loved to witness all of these characters interacting it was truly a joy to read even if we were crying throughout most of these scenes.” – The Honey Pop

The Forerunner: A Story of Pain and Perseverance in America by  Cori Bush

Nonfiction / Memoir / politics.

The ForerunnerHaving worked as a nurse, a pastor, and a community organizer in St. Louis, Missouri, Cori Bush hadn’t initially intended to run for political office. But when protests in Ferguson erupted in 2014, Bush found herself on the frontlines, providing medical care and protesting violence against Black lives. Encouraged by community leaders to run for office, and compelled by an urgency to prevent her children and others from becoming social media hashtags, Bush campaigned persistently while navigating myriad personal challenges–and ultimately rose to unseat a twenty-year incumbent to become the first Black woman to represent her state in Congress.

The Forerunner is the raw and moving account of a politician and activist whose life experiences, though underrepresented in the halls of Congress, reflect some of the same realities and struggles that many Americans face in their everyday lives. Courageously laying bare her experience as a minimum-wage worker, a survivor of domestic and sexual violence, and an unhoused parent, Congresswoman Bush embodies a new chapter in progressive politics that prioritizes the lives and stories of those most politically vulnerable at the core of its agenda. A testament to the lasting legacy of the Ferguson Uprising and an unflinching examination of how the American political system is so deeply intertwined with systemic injustice, The Forerunner is profoundly relatable and inspiring at its heart. At once a stirring and emotionally wrought personal account and a fierce call to action, this is political memoir the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

“A frank, powerful account of the life and budding political career of a dedicated advocate for gender and racial justice.” – Kirkus Reviews

“…markedly different from most political memoirs… Bush’s memoir is [a] tale of toughness, but it involves domestic trauma, lack of health care, minimum wage and police violence. Her battles are closer to home…” – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[A] powerfully authentic memoir… The life story of this history-making Congressional member eclipses the usual political memoir. Her story is riveting, moving, vivid, and radically vulnerable.” – Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

Funeral Train by  Laurie Lowenstein

Fiction / mystery / Historical fiction.

Funeral TrainAlready suffering the privations of the 1930s Dust Bowl, an Oklahoma town is further devastated when a passenger train derails—flooding its hospital with the dead and maimed. Among the seriously wounded is Etha, wife of Sheriff Temple Jennings. Overwhelmed by worry for her, the sheriff must regain his footing to investigate the derailment, which rapidly develops into a case of sabotage.

The following night, a local recluse is murdered. Temple has a hunch that this death is connected to the train wreck. But as he dissects the victim’s life with help from the recuperating and resourceful Etha, he discovers a tangle of records that make a number of townsfolk suspects in the murder.

Temple’s investigations take place against the backdrop of the Great Depression—where bootlegging, petty extortion, courage, and bravado play out in equal measure.

“The sequel to Death of a Rainmaker… is just as atmospheric. The anguish and struggles of the Dust Bowl and Depression years are vividly depicted in this historical mystery.” – Library Journal

“Excellent… Loewenstein gives a rich sense of the period and place, and dramatically shows how hard times can bring out the best in some and the worst in others. Historical regional mysteries don’t get much better than this.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

“She creates a vivid cast of gossips and cranks, loners and busy bodies. Some are lovable, some are not. All are connected to the secrets that lie just beneath the surface of the town’s dusty streets.” – Washington Post

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The Hero of This Book by  Elizabeth McCracken ★


The Hero of This BookTen months after her mother’s death, the narrator of The Hero of This Book takes a trip to London. The city was a favorite of her mother’s, and as the narrator wanders the streets, she finds herself reflecting on her mother’s life and their relationship. Thoughts of the past meld with questions of the future: Back in New England, the family home is now up for sale, its considerable contents already winnowed.

The woman, a writer, recalls all that made her complicated mother extraordinary–her brilliant wit, her generosity, her unbelievable obstinacy, her sheer will in seizing life despite physical difficulties–and finds herself wondering how her mother had endured. Even though she wants to respect her mother’s nearly pathological sense of privacy, the woman must come to terms with whether making a chronicle of this remarkable life constitutes an act of love or betrayal.

The Hero of This Book is a searing examination of grief and renewal, and of a deeply felt relationship between a child and her parents. What begins as a question of filial devotion ultimately becomes a lesson in what it means to write. At once comic and heartbreaking, with prose that delights at every turn, this is a novel of such piercing love and tenderness that we are reminded that art is what remains when all else falls away.

“Transcending categories, McCracken’s novel-as-eulogy and meditation on writing and truth is mischievous, funny, canny, and deeply affecting.” – Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

“Braided into McCracken’s gorgeously spiraling narrative is an expansive meditation on the act of writing and, intriguingly, the art of writing memoir… the novel assumes a hybrid quality that could be called autofiction but really is an homage to the art of great storytelling. Novel? Memoir? Who cares. It’s a great story, beautifully told.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“McCracken blurs fiction and memoir with a mischievous and loving portrait of her late mother… What emerges alongside this love letter to the restive Natalie is an engaging character study of a narrator who views everything through the lens of fiction (‘Your family is the first novel that you know’). It’s a refreshing outing, and one that sees McCracken gleefully shatter genre lines.” – Publishers Weekly

“I have long been a fan of McCracken’s fiction: her imagination! Her endlessly stellar and impressive sentences. But The Hero of This Book is a world all its own. McCracken hews closely to her own life, tracking the loss of her beloved mother and allowing the reader access to an extraordinary mind grappling in real time with what both a story and real lasting love might be. It’s funny as hell, brilliantly built, deeply felt, and the sentences remain incredible throughout.” – Los Angeles Times

Hester by  Laurie Lico Albanese

Fiction / Historical Fiction / Romance.

HesterIsobel Gamble is a young seamstress carrying generations of secrets when she sets sail from Scotland in the early 1800s with her husband, Edward. An apothecary who has fallen under the spell of opium, his pile of debts have forced them to flee Edinburgh for a fresh start in the New World. But only days after they’ve arrived in Salem, Edward abruptly joins a departing ship as a medic––leaving Isobel penniless and alone in a strange country, forced to make her way by any means possible.

When she meets a young Nathaniel Hawthorne, the two are instantly drawn to each other: he is a man haunted by his ancestors, who sent innocent women to the gallows––while she is an unusually gifted needleworker, troubled by her own strange talents. As the weeks pass and Edward’s safe return grows increasingly unlikely, Nathaniel and Isobel grow closer and closer. Together, they are a muse and a dark storyteller; the enchanter and the enchanted. But which is which?

In this sensuous and hypnotizing tale, a young immigrant woman grapples with our country’s complicated past, and learns that America’s ideas of freedom and liberty often fall short of their promise. Interwoven with Isobel and Nathaniel’s story is a vivid interrogation of who gets to be a “real” American in the first half of the 19th century, a depiction of the early days of the Underground Railroad in New England, and atmospheric interstitials that capture the long history of “unusual” women being accused of witchcraft. Meticulously researched yet evocatively imagined, Hester is a timeless tale of art, ambition, and desire that examines the roots of female creative power and the men who try to shut it down.

“This modern spin on an old story is rich in surprises and human drama, combining factual history, invention, and artistic sensibility.” – New Jersey Monthly

“A standout historical… Even those unfamiliar with the classic will be hooked by this account of a capable woman standing up to the sexist and racial prejudices of her time.” – Publishers Weekly

“In Hester, Albanese has masterminded a thoroughly immersive drama and a memorable, spirited heroine for the ages. Albanese’s elegant writing captures the dynamic, sensual energy between Isobel and Nat in breathtaking detail. Isobel’s appeal crosses cultural and generational borders to embody a timeless existential quest for the freedom to love and live as one pleases.” – Shelf Awareness

Mad Honey by  Jodi Picoult &  Jennifer Finney Boylan

Fiction / Mystery / Suspense / Romance.

Mad HoneyOlivia McAfee knows what it feels like to start over. Her picture-perfect life—living in Boston, married to a brilliant cardiothoracic surgeon, raising a beautiful son, Asher—was upended when her husband revealed a darker side. She never imagined she would end up back in her sleepy New Hampshire hometown, living in the house she grew up in, and taking over her father’s beekeeping business.

Lily Campanello is familiar with do-overs, too. When she and her mom relocate to Adams, New Hampshire, for her final year of high school, they both hope it will be a fresh start.

And for just a short while, these new beginnings are exactly what Olivia and Lily need. Their paths cross when Asher falls for the new girl in school, and Lily can’t help but fall for him, too. With Ash, she feels happy for the first time. Yet at times, she wonders if she can she trust him completely…

Then one day, Olivia receives a phone call: Lily is dead, and Asher is being questioned by the police. Olivia is adamant that her son is innocent. But she would be lying if she didn’t acknowledge the flashes of his father’s temper in him, and as the case against him unfolds, she realizes he’s hidden more than he’s shared with her.

Mad Honey is a riveting novel of suspense, an unforgettable love story, and a moving and powerful exploration of the secrets we keep and the risks we take in order to become ourselves.

“A well-paced story that highlights several timely issues, with a stimulating courtroom trial that makes it worth reading.” – Kirkus Reviews

“[A] spellbinding yarn… riveting… Overall, it’s a fruitful collaboration.” – Publishers Weekly

“[A] timely, gripping story… This timely and absorbing read will make readers glad these two powerful writers decided to collaborate.” – Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

Making a Scene by  Constance Wu

Nonfiction / Memoir / Television / Film.

Making a SceneGrowing up in the friendly suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, Constance Wu was often scolded for having big feelings or strong reactions. “Good girls don’t make scenes,” people warned her. And while she spent most of her childhood suppressing her bold, emotional nature, she found an early outlet in local community theater—it was the one place where big feelings were okay—were good, even. Acting became her refuge, her touchstone, and eventually her vocation. At eighteen she moved to New York, where she’d spend the next ten years of her life auditioning, waiting tables, and struggling to make rent before her two big breaks: the TV sitcom Fresh Off the Boat and the hit film Crazy Rich Asians.

Through raw and relatable essays, Constance shares private memories of childhood, young love and heartbreak, sexual assault and harassment, and how she “made it” in Hollywood. Her stories offer a behind-the-scenes look at being Asian American in the entertainment industry and the continuing evolution of her identity and influence in the public eye. Making a Scene is an intimate portrait of pressures and pleasures of existing in today’s world.

“Wu’s memoir grants readers an all-access pass to life behind the scenes with powerful insight and a warm personal touch.” – PopSugar

“Wu dazzles in this essay collection about love, family, and her hard-won path to Hollywood success… her determination radiates from every page.” – Publishers Weekly

“Wu wisely aligns poignant childhood anecdotes with new adult lessons… Generously sharing experiences of love, family, harassment, discrimination, and growth, Wu writes about others and her past self with the utmost respect. Her memoir is a gorgeously relatable portrait of a life guided by passion and art.” – Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

Nights of Plague by  Orhan Pamuk

Fiction / Historical Fiction.

Nights of PlagueIt is April 1900, in the Levant, on the imaginary island of Mingheria–the twenty-ninth state of the Ottoman Empire–located in the eastern Mediterranean between Crete and Cyprus. Half the population is Muslim, the other half are Orthodox Greeks, and tension is high between the two. When a plague arrives–brought either by Muslim pilgrims returning from the Mecca or by merchant vessels coming from Alexandria–the island revolts.

To stop the epidemic, the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II sends his most accomplished quarantine expert to the island–an Orthodox Christian. Some of the Muslims, including followers of a popular religious sect and its leader Sheikh Hamdullah, refuse to take precautions or respect the quarantine. And then a murder occurs.

As the plague continues its rapid spread, the Sultan sends a second doctor to the island, this time a Muslim, and strict quarantine measures are declared. But the incompetence of the island’s governor and local administration and the people’s refusal to respect the bans doom the quarantine to failure, and the death count continues to rise. Faced with the danger that the plague might spread to the West and to Istanbul, the Sultan bows to international pressure and allows foreign and Ottoman warships to blockade the island. Now the people of Mingheria are on their own, and they must find a way to defeat the plague themselves.

Steeped in history and rife with suspense, Nights of Plague is an epic story set more than one hundred years ago, with themes that feel remarkably contemporary.

“Consistently captivating… the cracking narrative will keep readers in for the long haul.” – Publishers Weekly

“Deftly blending rich realism and wry social commentary, Turkish Nobel laureate Pamuk… delivers an invented history that leverages the all-too-familiar experience of a deadly pandemic to return to one of his cherished topics: Ottoman bureaucratic and social reform… Pamuk is always a must-read, and the potency and timeliness of this novel will stir even more interest.” – Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

“One of the most interesting books I’ve read this year… [Pamuk] flout[s] the normal rules of storytelling… And yet none of these infringements of literary convention seems to matter much when set against the exuberance of Pamuk’s invention… a compendium of literary experiments, ludic, audacious, exasperating and entertaining.” – The Guardian

Our Missing Hearts by  Celeste Ng ★

Fiction / Science Fiction / Mystery.

Our Missing HeartsTwelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. Bird knows to not ask too many questions, stand out too much, or stray too far. For a decade, their lives have been governed by laws written to preserve “American culture” in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic—including the work of Bird’s mother, Margaret, a Chinese American poet who left the family when he was nine years old.

Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn’t know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn’t wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.

Our Missing Hearts is an old story made new, of the ways supposedly civilized communities can ignore the most searing injustice. It’s a story about the power—and limitations—of art to create change, the lessons and legacies we pass on to our children, and how any of us can survive a broken world with our hearts intact.

“[A] stark and stunning fable.” – Los Angeles Times

“A compelling and brutal telling of a too-real dystopia… It’s a thought-provoking book that will stay with you long after the last page.” – Country Living

“Remarkable… Ng crafts an affecting family drama out of the chilling and charged atmosphere, and shines especially when offering testimony to the power of art and storytelling… Ng’s latest crackles and sizzles all the way to the end.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

“What an immense joy it is to be back in the trusty hands of Celeste Ng! Like Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You, Our Missing Hearts is a careful study of a family trying their best to live their lives in a world that is rooting against them… [W]hat’s particularly striking is Celeste Ng’s ability to show us the horrors of this world while also showing how banal it’s become for our characters… This is a tale that is propulsive and poignant in equal measure; it’s a much-needed love letter to the written word.” – Literary Hub

Saturnalia by  Stephanie Feldman

Fiction / Horror / Fantasy.

SaturnaliaThe Saturnalia carnival marks three years since Nina walked away from Philadelphia’s elite Saturn Club—with its genteel debauchery, arcane pecking order, and winking interest in alchemy and the occult. In doing so, she abandoned her closest friends and her chance to climb the social ladder. Since then, she’s eked out a living by telling fortunes with her Saturn Club tarot deck, a solemn initiation gift that Nina always considered a gag but has turned out to be more useful than she could have ever imagined.

For most, the Saturnalia carnival marks a brief winter reprieve for the beleaguered people of the historic city, which is being eroded by extreme weather, a collapsing economy, and feverish summers—whose disease carrying mosquitos are perhaps the only thing one can count on. Like Thanksgiving or Halloween, Saturnalia has become a purely American holiday despite its pagan roots; and nearly everyone, rich or poor, forgets their troubles for a moment.

For Nina, Saturnalia is simply a cruel reminder of the night that changed everything for her. But when she gets a chance call from Max, one of the Saturn Club’s best-connected members and her last remaining friend, the favor he asks will plunge her back into the Club’s wild solstice masquerade, on a mysterious errand she cannot say no to.

Tonight, Nina will put on a dress of blackest black, and attend the biggest party of the year. Before it’s over, she will discover secret societies battling for power in an increasingly precarious world and become custodian of a horrifying secret—and the target of a mysterious hunter. As Nina runs across an alternate Philadelphia balanced on a knife’s edge between celebration and catastrophe, through parades, worship houses, museums, hidden mansions, and the place she once called home, she’s forced to confront her past in order to take charge of her own—and perhaps everyone’s—future.

“Saturnalia is part The Chosen and The Beautiful and part Eyes Wide Shut, wonderfully weird and chaotic and sexy and tinged with magic. It’s definitely a page-turner, and should be on the list for anyone who likes a little bit of romantic surrealism with their funhouse mirror dystopia.” –

Saturnalia is a twisted, ethereal dispatch from a climate change point of no return… ‘We say the earth is dying, but it’s not; it’s changing. We’re the ones who are dying,’ Nina reflects midway through her transformative night. Such humility, coupled with reverence for that which remains innocent in the ever warping world, becomes the novel’s true prima materia. Saturnalia is a piquant, eerie, and alarming tale.” – Foreword Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“Bewitching… a thrill for readers… The novel’s pacing is electric, its worldbuilding seamless, and the magic that slowly reveals itself feels truly strange and captivating… A propulsive fantasy thriller about fortune-seeking at the end of the world that will leave you wanting more.” – Kirkus Reviews

Button Hoopla Read

Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968 by  Thomas E. Ricks

Nonfiction / History.

Waging a Good WarIn Waging a Good War, bestselling author Thomas E. Ricks offers a fresh perspective on America’s greatest moral revolution—the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—and its legacy today. While the Movement has become synonymous with Martin Luther King Jr.’s ethos of nonviolence, Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize–winning war reporter, draws on his deep knowledge of tactics and strategy to note the surprising affinities between that ethos and the organized pursuit of success at war. The greatest victories for Black Americans of the past century, he stresses, were won not by idealism alone, but by paying attention to recruiting, training, discipline, and organization—the hallmarks of any successful military campaign.

An engaging storyteller, Ricks deftly narrates the movement’s triumphs and defeats. He follows King and other key figures from Montgomery to Memphis, demonstrating that Gandhian nonviolence was a philosophy of active, not passive, resistance – involving the bold and sustained confrontation of the Movement’s adversaries, both on the ground and in the court of public opinion. While bringing legends such as Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis into new focus, Ricks also highlights lesser-known figures who played critical roles in fashioning nonviolence into an effective tool—the activists James Lawson, James Bevel, Diane Nash, and Septima Clark foremost among them. He also offers a new understanding of the Movement’s later difficulties as internal disputes and white backlash intensified. Rich with fresh interpretations of familiar events and overlooked aspects of America’s civil rights struggle, Waging a Good War is an indispensable addition to the literature of racial justice and social change—and one that offers vital lessons for our own time.

“A novel interpretation… [and] a thoughtful contribution to the history of the struggle for civil rights in America.” – Kirkus Reviews

“[A] penetrating study… Ricks’s military metaphors… incisively spotlight the nuts and bolts of the movement’s achievements: meticulous planning and organizing, shrewd analysis of goals and the means to accomplish them, maintenance of discipline and morale, and cold-blooded realism. The result is a trenchant and stimulating guide to the strategies and tactics that can achieve sweeping social change.” – Publishers Weekly

“Thomas E. Ricks gives us a new way to understand the civil rights movement in his illuminating, engrossing, deeply researched and vividly written Waging a Good War… If you want to understand how the people of the civil rights movement went about changing the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, this is the book to read.” – BookPage, STARRED REVIEW

When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm by  Walt Bogdanich &  Michael Forsythe

Nonfiction / politics / business.

When McKinsey Comes to TownMcKinsey & Company is the most prestigious consulting company in the world, earning billions of dollars in fees from major corporations and governments who turn to it to maximize their profits and enhance efficiency. McKinsey’s vaunted statement of values asserts that its role is to make the world a better place, and its reputation for excellence and discretion attracts top talent from universities around the world. But what does it actually do?

In When McKinsey Comes to Town, two prizewinning investigative journalists have written a portrait of the company sharply at odds with its public image. Often McKinsey’s advice boils down to major cost-cutting, including layoffs and maintenance reductions, to drive up short-term profits, thereby boosting a company’s stock price and the wealth of its executives who hire it, at the expense of workers and safety measures. McKinsey collects millions of dollars advising government agencies that also regulate McKinsey’s corporate clients. And the firm frequently advises competitors in the same industries, but denies that this presents any conflict of interest.

In one telling example, McKinsey advised a Chinese engineering company allied with the communist government which constructed artificial islands, now used as staging grounds for the Chinese Navy–while at the same time taking tens of millions of dollars from the Pentagon, whose chief aim is to counter Chinese aggression.

Shielded by NDAs, McKinsey has escaped public scrutiny despite its role in advising tobacco and vaping companies, purveyors of opioids, repressive governments, and oil companies. McKinsey helped insurance companies’ boost their profits by making it incredibly difficult for accident victims to get payments; worked its U.S. government contacts to let Wall Street firms evade scrutiny; enabled corruption in developing countries such as South Africa; undermined health-care programs in states across the country. And much more.

Bogdanich and Forsythe have penetrated the veil of secrecy surrounding McKinsey by conducting hundreds of interviews, obtaining tens of thousands of revelatory documents, and following rule #1 of investigative reporting: Follow the money. When McKinsey Comes to Town is a landmark work of investigative reporting that amounts to a devastating portrait of a firm whose work has often made the world more unequal, more corrupt, and more dangerous.

“A startling case study of how unchecked corporate power affects world affairs—and all of us.” – Kirkus Reviews

“[A] revelatory and often shocking account… Scrupulously documented and fluidly written, this is a jaw-dropping feat of investigative journalism.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

“…deeply reported… Reading Bogdanich and Forsythe’s account, one has a hard time imagining any paying client the firm would turn away… The portrait this book creates is one of a company chasing profits, spreading the gospel of downsizing and offshoring, its leaders virtually unmoored from any guiding principles or moral code… creates a clear and devastating picture of the management philosophy that helped drive the decline of a stable American middle class over the last 50 years.” – New York Times


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  1. Sean: I always enjoy your posts of “Best New Books” over the last few years and appreciate you indicating the sources of how you pick the best books for the week. And yet it has become a little obvious that your sources of “best books” appear to vote their non-fiction picks through a political prism. (Ex: The Forerunner & Confidence Man). And yet I notice there are never books like: “The Age of Obama” by the brilliant Charles Krauthamer or American Marxism” by the renowned Mark Levin, or even “Blitz:by David Horowitz, a former Leftist and currently on the New York Times Best Seller list. How could these authors never make it to the “Best Books” of the week list? Could it be these books don’t support a left-wing ideology?

    Just a thought but I have to believe I’m not the only Avalon Library reader who has noticed there appears to be a bit of a bias in each week’s selection.
    Thank you.

    Carolanne Helverson

    • Hi Carolanne! I’m glad you have been enjoying these posts. As for the 2 books in question, I actually spent a lot of time going back and forth about whether to include them or not due to the very political nature of them. In general with those kinds of books, they wind up not being well-reviewed and the system allows me to leave them off of the list but that wasn’t the case this time. I ultimately decided to leave them in since they met all of the qualifications for inclusion and I felt that omitting them would be too close to censorship.

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