Best New Books: Week of 10/31/23

“We are surrounded by story.” – Alice McDermott

Absolution by Alice McDermott

fiction / historical fiction.

AbsolutionYou have no idea what it was like. For us. The women, I mean. The wives.

American women—American wives—have been mostly minor characters in the literature of the Vietnam War, but in Absolution they take center stage. Tricia is a shy newlywed, married to a rising attorney on loan to navy intelligence. Charlene is a practiced corporate spouse and mother of three, a beauty and a bully. In Saigon in 1963, the two women form a wary alliance as they balance the era’s mandate to be “helpmeets” to their ambitious husbands with their own inchoate impulse to “do good” for the people of Vietnam.

Sixty years later, Charlene’s daughter, spurred by an encounter with an aging Vietnam vet, reaches out to Tricia. Together, they look back at their time in Saigon, taking wry account of that pivotal year and of Charlene’s altruistic machinations, and discovering how their own lives as women on the periphery—of politics, of history, of war, of their husbands’ convictions—have been shaped and burdened by the same sort of unintended consequences that followed America’s tragic interference in Southeast Asia.

A virtuosic new novel from Alice McDermott, one of our most observant, most affecting writers, about folly and grace, obligation, sacrifice, and, finally, the quest for absolution in a broken world.

“[A] powerful story…” – Publishers Weekly

“This transporting, piercing, profound novel is McDermott’s masterpiece.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“Damning and dazzling, this is the story of a Vietnam we never got in history class―a story of innocence lost, the bounds of womanhood tested, and our nation held to account.” – Charley Burlock, Oprah Daily

“…sublime… McDermott is a resplendent writer of lacerating insights, gorgeous lyricism, and subtle yet exacting moral reckoning, here illuminating shades of good and evil within a bubble of Western privilege and prejudice in a country on the brink of war, concentrating the inane and cruel misogyny women faced in Barbie, that freshly energized icon of female paradox and power.” – Donna Seaman, Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

Being Henry: The Fonz… and Beyond by Henry Winkler

nonfiction / memoir / television.

Being HenryHenry Winkler, launched into prominence as “The Fonz” in the beloved Happy Days, has transcended the role that made him who he is. Brilliant, funny, and widely-regarded as the nicest man in Hollywood (though he would be the first to tell you that it’s simply not the case, he’s really just grateful to be here), Henry shares in this achingly vulnerable memoir the disheartening truth of his childhood, the difficulties of a life with severe dyslexia, the pressures of a role that takes on a life of its own, and the path forward once your wildest dream seems behind you.

Since the glorious era of Happy Days fame, Henry has endeared himself to a new generation with roles in such adored shows as Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, and Barry, where he’s been revealed as an actor with immense depth and pathos, a departure from the period of his life when he was so distinctly typecast as The Fonz, he could hardly find work.

Filled with profound heart, charm, and self-deprecating humor, Being Henry is a memoir about so much more than a life in Hollywood and the curse of stardom. It is a meaningful testament to the power of sharing truth and kindness and of finding fulfillment within yourself.

“This charming autobiography of personal struggles during times of career success and challenge deserves a big thumbs-up.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Winkler’s personality shines through in this memoir and cements his status as a beloved celebrity for multiple generations.” – Lisa Henry, Library Journal

“Though Winkler includes plenty of inside-Hollywood fare, the book’s frankness sets it apart from standard-issue actor memoirs. The result is a heartfelt chronicle of learning to love one’s self, shortcomings and all.” – Publishers Weekly

The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters

fiction / historical fiction / mystery.

The Berry PickersJuly 1962. A Mi’kmaq family from Nova Scotia arrives in Maine to pick blueberries for the summer. Weeks later, four-year-old Ruthie, the family’s youngest child, vanishes. She is last seen by her six-year-old brother, Joe, sitting on a favorite rock at the edge of a berry field. Joe will remain distraught by his sister’s disappearance for years to come.

In Maine, a young girl named Norma grows up as the only child of an affluent family. Her father is emotionally distant, her mother frustratingly overprotective. Norma is often troubled by recurring dreams and visions that seem more like memories than imagination. As she grows older, Norma slowly comes to realize there is something her parents aren’t telling her. Unwilling to abandon her intuition, she will spend decades trying to uncover this family secret.

For readers of The Vanishing Half and Woman of Light, this showstopping debut by a vibrant new voice in fiction is a riveting novel about the search for truth, the shadow of trauma, and the persistence of love across time.

“[A] harrowing tale of Indigenous family separation… [Peters] excels in writing characters for whom we can’t help rooting… With The Berry Pickers, Peters takes on the monumental task of giving witness to people who suffered through racist attempts of erasure like her Mi’kmaw ancestors.” – Eric Nguyen, New York Times

“[A] sensitive and devastating saga of families broken, children stolen, and fierce reckonings with the traumas of history… [Its] emotional climax will leave most readers with at least a tear in the eye.” – Molly Odintz, CrimeReads

“Peters’ debut combines narrative skill and a poignant story for a wonderful novel to which many readers will gravitate… Indigenous stories like this matter, and while little is easy for Peters’ characters, in the end, for all of them—even for those who stole a small child—there is hope.” – Emily Dziuban, Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

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Dirty Thirty by Janet Evanovich

fiction / mystery / comedy.

Dirty ThirtyStephanie Plum, Trenton’s hardest working, most underappreciated bounty hunter, is offered a freelance assignment that seems simple enough. Local jeweler Martin Rabner wants her to locate his former security guard, Andy Manley (a.k.a. Nutsy), who he is convinced stole a fortune in diamonds out of his safe. Stephanie is also looking for another troubled man, Duncan Dugan, a fugitive from justice arrested for robbing the same jewelry store on the same day.

With her boyfriend Morelli away in Miami on police business, Stephanie is taking care of Bob, Morelli’s giant orange dog who will devour anything, from Stephanie’s stray donuts to the upholstery in her car. Morelli’s absence also means the inscrutable, irresistible security expert Ranger is front and center in Stephanie’s life when things inevitably go sideways. And he seems determined to stay there.

To complicate matters, her best friend Lula is convinced she is being stalked by a mythological demon hell-bent on relieving her of her wardrobe. An overnight stakeout with Stephanie’s mother and Grandma Mazur reveals three generations of women with nerves of steel and driving skills worthy of NASCAR champions.

As the body count rises and witnesses start to disappear, it won’t be easy for Stephanie to keep herself clean when everyone else is playing dirty. It’s a good thing Stephanie isn’t afraid of getting a little dirty, too.

“Stephanie Plum is ready to read her suspects for filth because she is getting dirty.” – Maureen Lee Lenker, Entertainment Weekly

“Those who don’t yet know sassy, spunky New Jersey sleuth Stephanie Plum simply must meet her… An uproarious, crazy, laugh-a-minute caper with Trenton, New Jersey’s most likable and notorious crime buster.” – Emily Melton, Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

“Series fans know what they’re in for, and Evanovich delivers it: quick wit, sly clue-dropping, and a well-utilized supporting cast including Stephanie’s irrepressible Grandma Mazur and the sexy Ranger, owner of a high-end security business who offers Stephanie backup (and a bed) as needed. This is fast-paced and laugh-filled fun.” – Publishers Weekly

A Dish Best Served Hot by Natalie Caña

fiction / romance.

A Dish Best Served HotYears ago, Saint walked away from the girl he loved to fulfill his duty. Now he’s struggling to build bridges between his drifting family, take on more responsibilities at his uncle’s construction company, figure out why his daughter refuses to talk at school and curtail his mischievous abuelo’s escalating pranks. Then she walks back into his life.

Social justice advocate Lola León has returned to Humboldt Park for two reasons: to help care for her dear abuelo and to serve the community center she loved, particularly the shelter for unhoused LGBTQIA+ youths. When she finds out that the Vegas are responsible for endangering both, she is more than ready to go to war—even if the boy she never forgot is standing at the front of the battlefield.

Neither of them expects to become allies in saving the shelter, helping Saint’s daughter or ending the decades-long feud between their grandfathers. They definitely don’t expect all of their old feelings to come rushing back. As Saint and Lola enter combat, they can’t help but wonder where the other’s true allegiance lies, and whether they’ll win these battles only to lose each other.

“A vibrant second-chance love story about repairing community and romantic connection.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“…charming and emotionally mature…  Themes of mental health and inequity add weight to the romantic story line, while the meddling abuelos offer welcome levity. This is a treat.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

“Highly recommended for fans of contemporary romances with strong social justice and family themes. This second ‘Vega Family Love Stories’ book (following A Proposal They Can’t Refuse) works well as a stand-alone.” – Migdalia Jimenez, Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

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Nestlings by Nat Cassidy

fiction / horror / mystery.

NestlingsAna and Reid needed a lucky break.

The horrifically complicated birth of their first child has left Ana paralyzed, bitter, and struggling: with mobility, with her relationship with Reid, with resentment for her baby. That’s about to change with the words any New Yorker would love to hear—affordable housing lottery.

They’ve won an apartment in the Deptford, one of Manhattan’s most revered buildings with beautiful vistas of Central Park and stunning architecture.

Reid dismisses disturbing events and Ana’s deep unease and paranoia as the price of living in New York—people are odd—but he can’t explain the needle-like bite marks on the baby.

“Disturbing and creepy, Nestlings is the perfect horror story to curl up with this Halloween.” – Books, Bones & Buffy

“Easily Cassidy’s best work thus far and one that shows his utter flair for the horror genre… intelligent and incisive… Nestlings understands the fear of parenthood, love, and choice while pushing the reader from their nest of comfort.” – Zach Rosenberg, FanFiAddict

“…engrossing and disturbing… readers will be snared in a web of intrigue as Ana and Reid fight for their family and, ultimately, their lives. A visceral story that will entertain readers from start to finish, coating them in dread even as it plays with their minds and pushes their limits.” – Becky Spratford, Booklist

On Great Fields: The Life and Unlikely Heroism of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain by Ronald C. White

nonfiction / biography / history.

On Great FieldsBefore 1862, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had rarely left his home state of Maine, where he was a trained minister and mild-mannered professor at Bowdoin College. His colleagues were shocked when he volunteered for the Union army, but he was undeterred and later became known as one of the North’s greatest heroes: On the second day at Gettysburg, after running out of ammunition at Little Round Top, he ordered his men to wield their bayonets in a desperate charge down a rocky slope that routed the Confederate attackers. Despite being wounded at Petersburg—and told by two surgeons he would die—Chamberlain survived the war, going on to be elected governor of Maine four times and serve as president of Bowdoin College.

How did a stuttering young boy come to be fluent in nine languages and even teach speech and rhetoric? How did a trained minister find his way to the battlefield? Award-winning historian Ronald C. White delves into these contradictions in this cradle-to-grave biography of General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, from his upbringing in rural Maine to his tenacious, empathetic military leadership and his influential postwar public service, exploring a question that still plagues so many veterans: How do you make a civilian life of meaning after having experienced the extreme highs and lows of war?

Chamberlain is familiar to millions from Michael Shaara’s now-classic novel of the Civil War, The Killer Angels, and Ken Burns’s timeless miniseries The Civil War, but in this book, White captures the complex and inspiring man behind the hero. Heavily illustrated and featuring nine detailed maps, this gripping, impeccably researched portrait illuminates one of the most admired but least known figures in our nation’s bloodiest conflict.

“A revealing portrait of an American hero who deserves even wider recognition.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“Based on extensive primary research, this book gives fresh insight into Chamberlain’s life. Readers interested in the American Civil War and biographies of famous 19th-century Americans will enjoy this title.” – Chad E. Statler, Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

“By delving deeply into Chamberlain’s intellectual and spiritual life, White successfully reconciles his subject’s contradictory reputation as both a ‘bookworm college and seminary student’ and a ‘risk-taking Civil War soldier.’ Civil War fans and general history readers alike should take note.” – Publishers Weekly

People to Follow by Olivia Worley

fiction / young adult / suspense / mystery.

People to FollowWelcome to In Real Life, the hot new reality show that forces social media’s reigning kings and queens to unplug for three weeks and “go live” without any filters. IRL is supposed to be the opportunity of a lifetime, watched closely by legions of loyal followers. But for these rising stars–including Elody, an Instagram model with an impulsive streak; Kira, a child star turned fitness influencer; Logan, a disgraced TikTok celeb with a secret; and Max, a YouTuber famous for exposés on his fellow creators–it’s about to turn into a nightmare.

When the production crew fails to show up and one of their own meets a violent end, these social media moguls find themselves stranded with a dead body and no way to reach the outside world. When they start receiving messages from a mysterious Sponsor threatening to expose their darkest secrets, they realize that they’ve been lured into a deadly game… and one of them might be pulling the strings.

With the body count rising and cameras tracking their every move, the creators must figure out who is trying to get them canceled–like, literally–before their #1 follower strikes again.

And Then There Were None meets Device Free Weekend…” – Molly Odintz, CrimeReads

“A chilling thriller that explores the consequences of getting #canceled.” – Kirkus Reviews

“[A] tense debut thriller… [with] lighting-quick pacing and savvy twists, and through four shifting perspectives, Worley notably considers social media fame’s impact on both the content creator and their following.” – Publishers Weekly

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The Race to Be Myself: A Memoir by Caster Semenya

nonfiction / memoir / sports.

The Race to Be MyselfOlympian and World Champion Caster Semenya is finally ready to share the vivid and heartbreaking story of how the world came to know her name. Thrust into the spotlight at just eighteen years old after winning the Berlin World Championships in 2009, Semenya’s win was quickly overshadowed by criticism and speculation about her body, and she became the center of a still-raging firestorm about how gender plays out in sports, our expectations of female athletes, and the right to compete as you are.

Told with captivating speed and candor, The Race to Be Myself is the journey of Semenya’s years as an athlete in the public eye, and her life behind closed doors. From her rural beginnings running free in the dust, to crushing her opponents in record time on the track, to the accusations and falsehoods spread about her in the press, the legal trial she went through in order to compete, and the humiliation she has been forced to endure publicly and privately. This book is a searing testimony for anyone who has been forced to stop doing what they love.

“[A] revelatory memoir…” – New York Times

“A gripping, provocative book that will engage readers of titles about track, international sports, gender politics, and acceptance.” – Mark Jones, Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

“Here, for the first time, Semenya shares her perspective on the trauma and horrific treatment she endured to fulfill her dreams of reaching her potential as a female athlete and providing her family with financial support. Told with candor, Semenya’s story reminds readers to treat all humans with dignity and that being different does not mean being wrong.” – Brenda Barrera, Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

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The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

fiction / horror / historical fiction / mystery.

The ReformatoryGracetown, Florida

June 1950

Twelve-year-old Robbie Stephens, Jr., is sentenced to six months at the Gracetown School for Boys, a reformatory, for kicking the son of the largest landowner in town in defense of his older sister, Gloria. So begins Robbie’s journey further into the terrors of the Jim Crow South and the very real horror of the school they call The Reformatory.

Robbie has a talent for seeing ghosts, or haints. But what was once a comfort to him after the loss of his mother has become a window to the truth of what happens at the reformatory. Boys forced to work to remediate their so-called crimes have gone missing, but the haints Robbie sees hint at worse things. Through his friends Redbone and Blue, Robbie is learning not just the rules but how to survive. Meanwhile, Gloria is rallying every family member and connection in Florida to find a way to get Robbie out before it’s too late.

The Reformatory is a haunting work of historical fiction written as only American Book Award–winning author Tananarive Due could, by piecing together the life of the relative her family never spoke of and bringing his tragedy and those of so many others at the infamous Dozier School for Boys to the light in this riveting novel.

“[A] masterful work of historical horror… This harrowing, supernaturally inflected depiction of racism’s unbridled cruelty and the generational trauma it can inflict is sure to stick in readers’ minds.” – Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

“[An] intensely readable, immersive story… the novel’s extended, layered denouement is so heart-smashingly good, it made me late for work. I couldn’t stop reading. I needed to find out what was going to happen next, and next, and next.” – Randy Boyagoda, New York Times

“You can hear the doors clanking shut as you turn the pages. Due’s novel is one of those where you hold your breath because you know that even the characters you like best aren’t necessarily going to escape the worst… The Reformatory is moving and convincing because it knows that no one needs to possess America to force it to do evil. And it also knows that real evil is a lot worse than the classics would have us believe.” – Noah Berlatsky, Observer

“Due has an unparalleled talent for crafting ghost stories, setting her apart from other writers in the horror genre. Her prose is hauntingly vivid, enriched with descriptive detail and an evocative atmosphere. Within the pages, a palpable sense of history permeates, lending an eerie realism that makes the novel profoundly creepy and, at times, downright terrifying.” – Janelle Janson, Cemetery Dance

The Spy Coast by Tess Gerritsen

fiction / mystery / suspense.

The Spy CoastFormer spy Maggie Bird came to the seaside village of Purity, Maine, eager to put the past behind her after a mission went tragically wrong. These days, she’s living quietly on her chicken farm, still wary of blowback from the events that forced her early retirement.

But when a body turns up in Maggie’s driveway, she knows it’s a message from former foes who haven’t forgotten her. Maggie turns to her local circle of old friends—all retirees from the CIA—to help uncover the truth about who is trying to kill her, and why. This “Martini Club” of former spies may be retired, but they still have a few useful skills that they’re eager to use again, if only to spice up their rather sedate new lives.

Complicating their efforts is Purity’s acting police chief, Jo Thibodeau. More accustomed to dealing with rowdy tourists than homicide, Jo is puzzled by Maggie’s reluctance to share information—and by her odd circle of friends, who seem to be a step ahead of her at every turn.

As Jo’s investigation collides with the Martini Club’s maneuvers, Maggie’s hunt for answers will force her to revisit a clandestine career that spanned the globe, from Bangkok to Istanbul, from London to Malta. The ghosts of her past have returned, but with the help of her friends—and the reluctant Jo Thibodeau—Maggie might just be able to save the life she’s built.

“You can expect mystery, action, and bloodshed in this exciting thriller launched straight from the peaceful shores of Maine.” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“…amusing and exciting… The plot bustles along nicely, careening from Thailand to Italy and many points in between, but the real surprise is the richness of Gerritsen’s supporting cast, a cantankerous bunch whose love for one another runs deep.” – Publishers Weekly

“Compelling reading throughout, with astute characterizations, a fast-moving but understandable spy plot, and lashings of dark humor. Gerritsen fans and readers of Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club mysteries will love this.” – Connie Fletcher, Booklist, STARRED REVIEW


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